Chapter 1: Anchorite
Half second of disorientation that dissolves sharply into perfect awareness. Pain radiating from my face. Stabbing ache in ribs like a punch in the gut. Broken rib, probably. More than one? Uncertain. Hurts on inhale, exhale. Morning.
Strange dream lingers: John with teacups for eyes, disposable razor blades for fingers: disturbing. Odd sensation coiled up in chest, like breath not caught. Distress. Fear? No. Couldn't be. Even with teacups for eyes, it's still only John. Sadness, perhaps. Loss. Regret? It fades. It’s morning, dreams always fade.
Dreams are irrelevant.
Roughly twelve degrees outside; nearly a degree cooler than yesterday morning. The long slow trudge toward midwinter. Boring. Muted light through the window; roughly quarter past seven, mildly rainy, deeply overcast. Has been raining since somewhere around 4am. Will be muddy down by the riverbank; must remember to wear boots.
Though: won't be permitted to even leave the flat today, probably. Not if John finds out about the rib, certainly. John will bar the door (as if that will help), and Lestrade won't let me near the crime scene. May find a way to arrest me to keep me away, keep me from moving around too much. Pity. Will be a trying day. Hate being arrested. But: what needs must.
Right leg stiff, more than a bit sore: twisted? Strained? Impact of the fall, surely. Secondary injuries untended by my careful and concerned doctor. His face: so full of compassion, of care, of everything beautiful and pure in this world. How does he do it? How can he hold his heart in his hands like that without leaving a trail of blood everywhere he goes? A certain kind of bravery, more mundane maybe, but no less exceptional. He doesn't know about the rib yet. Didn't see that set of blows. Wrist: broken? No. Bruised, surely, maybe mildly sprained. Will make playing violin more challenging, but a little pain never hurt anyone.
Vulgar Tchaikovsky concerto in my head, why? No space for Tchaikovsky today. Perhaps later tonight? John likes Tchaikovsky. Doesn’t ever seem to know it is Tchaikovsky when he hears it. Doesn’t seem to care.
“I love that, what was it?” he'll say, sitting in his armchair, eyes shut (usually, sometimes not, sometimes he watches me play, and I watch him right back). I imagine what he says instead is I love you, and bask in it. Feels like sunshine radiating out from him, like heat, like fingers of smoke that stroke me. I imagine he hasn't said it yet, only feels it, feels the urge to. And then there’s me caught in the moments just before he says it, the moment when it’s utterly true, before it has a chance to degrade, fall apart. He’s about to say it, to say, I love you, to me, of all people, to me, words about to appear in the air in front of him like smoke rings. I let it hover over me, the fantasy, the sensation. Him listening to the sounds of my violin, of my fingers pressed against the strings, my bow, the sound that vibrates through my chest first before it reaches him, his eyes shut (or not). John sitting in his armchair loving Serenade for Strings, or a bit of Swan Lake (as I said: vulgar) instead of loving me, but it’s so close. I concentrate, play even better, push the dire depths of my maudlin heart strings into the violin strings. “I love (you),” he says, “what was it?” how can anyone not recognize Swan Lake?
Every time. Every time he asks, it’s Tchaikovsky. Why? Does it appeal to some angst-ridden homosexual tendencies in him? One can only hope. A soft heart, a romantic heart.
Still vulgar, though.
Don’t want to open my eyes yet; reality is never quite as interesting as the insides of my head. Teacups for eyes? How bizarre. John was naked in that dream. Naked and fourteen-feet tall. Still irrelevant. I was tiny; he could hold me in the palm of his hand, trap me with his disposable razor blade fingers. My subconscious is mad.
Eyes are gummy, nose feels flattened and sore, mild ache in left mandibular lateral incisor. Probe it with my tongue. Loose, but won’t fall out. Thank God, I hate the dentists. Aching head. Bit of blood; copper taste. Eyes open: bleary. Sticky. Got roughed up a bit last night. Worth it. So much evidence. Ha! So easy, this one. Idiot.
Eyes drain of moisture in the night, caught on damp eyelashes that tangle and stick together. Bit of blood, unconscious tears. (would I cry if I lost him? I think I would. Emotional wound like an overwhelming physical one, prompting a physiological reaction.) Tear them open, pull out a few eyelashes in the process. Blink the gum away. The world is a bloody grey place once your eyes are open. The dull grey of morning. Off-white ceiling, bare walls, bedroom door shut tight, the pattern of the raindrops and streaks on the window against it.
Touch phone; flip over. Text from Lestrade? Nothing. Text him something peevish; he should learn to share. Doesn’t get him anywhere to hold onto details of cases. When will he learn?
Your lead is underwater. SH
That will keep him scratching his head. Ha! He should know better than to keep information from me. As if I don’t already know!
John moving around the kitchen; water boiling in the kettle. Box of teabags against the worktop; sugar pot. (Slightly less than half full, from the sound.) John’s wearing socks, not slippers or shoes. He’s still groggy, didn’t sleep well. Nightmares again (of course). One of these days I will just barge right in there, I will stop his nightmares with the sheer force of my will. I will stare them down. I will outsmart them. He’s swearing under his breath now, why? Tired? Frustrated? Oh, he saw the fingers in the fridge. Well, where else were they going to go?
John's tired feet against the floor, walking toward my bedroom with a mug of hot liquid in his hand. He walks more carefully when he's bringing me a cup of tea, as if something dreadful will happen if he spills it. Sensation in my chest, like my heart smiles as he approaches. I know the signs and symptoms of being desperately, hopelessly in love. Sort of wish I didn't, but you can't wish knowledge away. Bit of cocaine wouldn't hurt, though. John would never stand for it.
He taps on the door, like a polite flatmate. Grunt in response. A creak as the door opens. I love that he doesn’t care what I think about it; he comes in because he needs to, because he wants to. Wants to see that I’m all right, cares whether I’m all right. John: he’s like the sunshine pouring in. He feels like warmth sneaking into a cold place. His hair, dishevelled, his face full of sleep, I want to kiss him, I want to wrap myself around him and never let him go. Morning is not so grey when he’s here. He is my colours.
“Sherlock?” his voice is rough; hours of not speaking through the night. A rusty instrument. Imagine an anchorite, hidden away in a cave for decades, living a life of sleep and prayer, not speaking to a soul for years and years, then trying to form words with vocal chords that have been so disused they’ve forgotten their purpose; the human body needs to be used to fully function. Like your heart, says the third man, my knowing subconscious. Like your heart, Sherlock. Like an anchorite trying to speak. Metaphor: not really my area.
John sits down on my bed, the small of his back against my thigh. He is the very definition of warm, a walking bit of vocabulary. Sigh. Act bored, act vaguely annoyed. John puts the cup of tea down on my bedside table, his hand moving to my face.
“How are you this morning?” Always the doctor, my John. And so he is, my John. No matter what happens. Light touches against my cheekbones, testing the bandage across my nose, his fingers trace lightly at my torn lip.
“Fine. It’s fine, don’t fuss.” Deep breath; accidental (is it?) cough; wince from the pain. John’s hands against my chest, only the thin material of a t-shirt between us. Eyes flutter shut again.
“Shit,” John says under his breath. “You didn’t mention a cracked rib, Sherlock.” A note of reproach in his voice. His hands lift up the t-shirt. The pain of the rib is nothing compared to the pleasure of John’s warm hands pressing lightly against me. Like smoke rings. Like imaginary love. “I’ll get you something for the pain,” John says.
“Mmm.” No point in arguing. An opiate would soothe all of the various wounds, physical and emotional. But likely John only means to give me paracetamol. Bastard.
“I know you'll want to go back to the crime scene,” John says, and sighs. He shifts a little on the bed, his hands still pressed against me, his warm hands. His fingers; they pull triggers and kill, they are so gentle on me. “I’ll have to tape that up first, though.”
Oh, my John. My blogger, my helpmeet. Tape me up and take me out. I love you. I love you. I love you.
Grunt, mumble out, “Fine,” turn head away. “Pass me my tea.” Not a question, a demand. An anchorite, finally, finally trying to talk. Heart beats sideways. Warm mug in my hand, warm fingers on mine. “Thank you.” Uncharacteristic: that will confuse him. He stops, I open my eyes and watch him. He smiles. He looks concerned. I must look worse even than I feel.
“That’s all right,” he says. His voice is soft, like his fingers, his touch.
I will put on my boots before going down to the river bank to show Lestrade and his minions exactly who they shall have to arrest. It will not be difficult. I will walk carefully for John’s sake and John will hold my arm, concerned. We will have dinner, and I will eat, at John’s insistence. Maybe soup. And when we come home again I will play some Tchaikovsky for John, in spite of its obvious vulgarity and his protests about my sprains and cracked rib and wounds. He will keep his eyes open to watch me. And he will love what I play for him. And that will be enough.
Chapter 2: Hospital Corners
He’s asleep. His breathing has the rhythmic quality of unconsciousness; shallow, regular, quiet. Slight hiss as air is drawn in through his nose, huff as it slides back out. He’s on his side, his face away from the door, his knees bent and one arm tucked underneath the pillow. Asleep. A reversible condition, but I won’t wake him. Not yet, anyway. Not tonight. Someday, maybe.
The door is partially open, as it often is. There’s plenty of room for me to stand here and watch. Can stand still for hours without making a sound. I know I can, I’ve done it. Repeatedly.
There remains not a single angle from, or condition under which, I would fail to recognise John Watson. Have made a careful study of him, from the length of his thighs and the shape of each of his toes to the dynamics of his gait. If John were kidnapped for any length of time (unable to commit to his regular grooming pattern): would be able to report the precise length of his hair, including facial. Could sketch the shape of his fingernails from memory. If handed a photograph in which John was hidden within a crowd with only his right shoulder visible: would be able to identify him (within fifteen seconds).
(A video; within ten.)
From here at the door, his back to me: the line of his shoulders almost entirely parallel to the stretched pattern of light through the window from the streetlamp outside. Cannot see his face. A pity. The image in my mind: never quite as good as the real thing.
Does he leave his door ajar like this on purpose? (Maybe he’s inviting me, teasing me, daring me.)
No, probably not. Nice thought, though. Too devious. Something I would do (not John). John doesn’t play that kind of subtle game. Feigning sleep behind a half-opened door in order to be watched, to be adored, to be desired quietly (and from a distance). Passive aggression isn’t his modus operandi. No, the door is open because he wants to be awakened when something disturbing happens somewhere else in the flat in the middle of the night (not an unwarranted presumption). Not a special message to me. Something about cigars being cigars. Don’t remember how it goes. Deleted it ages ago. (John would remember.)
His bed: so neat. Obscene. Hospital corners on the sheets, on the woollen blanket Mrs Hudson left folded there for him months ago. Even the bedspread: hospital cornered within an inch of its life. Sitting there in the middle of the day (cross-legged, or curled up, or lying flat on my back) when John isn’t around: the edges often spring free. Can just sit there, breaking his hospital corners, thinking. Breathing. Leaving a mark on space and time.
Sometimes: lie there in his bed and stare up at the ceiling. Watch the pattern of lights from the window, following the cracks in the ceiling to their logical ends. Perfectly straight, perfectly smooth bed. Lie on the side John doesn’t sleep on, the right side. (John is left handed.) Lie there as if John is sleeping on the other side, perfectly occupying the space left there for a bed partner. (Do all left handed people sleep on the left side of the bed? Why would they?)
John never notices the bedspread sprung free at the corners when he comes home. The slightly disturbed lines of it. He’s never, as far as I am able to deduce (substantially far), managed to see that his bed has sprung apart a bit at the seams. That it’s been sat upon. Never made any appearance of recognising the telltale indentation my head leaves on the pillow. (So obvious. You can smell a person on cotton pillow cases. I know. I’ve done it. Repeatedly.)
Maybe he does notice. Underestimating him? Maybe he knows and approves, appreciates my small battles against the remains of his military habits. Though my original, far more likely, deduction is surely correct; he is an idiot. Simply doesn’t observe the signs that someone else, obviously his flatmate (who else would it be?), curls up in a foetal position on his outrageously neat bed in the afternoons (as a proxy for curling up next to object of his pathetic, adolescent, ridiculous, unrequited lust). For the best. Interpersonal relationships: really not my area. (Obviously.)
At night John undoes a single corner of his perfectly folded and tucked creation and crawls into bed, leaving most of the bedclothes undisturbed. So as he falls asleep he looks as though he’s wrapped in some sort of bed-shaped pastry, the form of his body beneath the surface perfectly obvious to the casual observer. His feet, his calves. The spot on his lower back where it curves. His shoulders, rising up to obscure his face from me. His bed clings to him, holds him, soothes him. (I could do that.)
(Could I? Really? Would I have the patience? Wouldn’t it get boring? Maybe. Probably. Maybe not. Impossible to tell. Annoying.)
But in the night he dreams. Dream is the pleasant word for it; there is no verb for enduring a nightmare. Slowly through the night, as the fear approaches (in the shape of a terrorist? Or the threat of IEDs under his feet? Death and destruction, screaming? I don’t know, I’ve never asked.) he starts to shake, and then he rolls onto his back, as if ready to defend himself, pressed against a wall or protecting innocent Afghani children behind him, or some other heroic feat he is surely reliving in his dreams, and as he shifts he rips apart one corner of his carefully-made bed. His arms and legs start to move, first almost imperceptibly, then with more violence. He fights in his sleep, struggles, moans, words fill his mouth but don’t come out. The corner by his head comes apart first, then, within roughly eight minutes, the one remaining hospital corner at his feet. From this I deduce that in his nightmares he fights first, with his hands, then he runs. He runs because the fighting has failed, or because it hasn’t, and someone has died under his hands.
If John dreamed about killing people with his gun, he wouldn’t tear his bed apart every night. The act of pulling a trigger is such a gentle motion, so elegant: only three muscles are required. Flexor Digitorum Profundus, Flexor Digitorum Superficialis and the Palmar Interosseous. Anyone who isn’t me might not even notice the subtle motion of these three muscles of John’s left index finger, not even with the bedding pulled so tight across his body every night. John does not dream of pulling triggers.
And thus during the night the carefully-constructed order of John’s bedclothes is utterly eradicated; from perfect symmetry (the sheets, the blanket, and the bedspread are always laid perfectly evenly on the bed, each side matching the other with mathematical precision) to varying degrees of chaos by morning. Sometimes he pulls all the sheets off his bed, leaving the shiny fabric of the mattress visible. Once he woke up, wrapped in his sheets, inside the cupboard - the mattress pushed off the bed frame, the pillows slumped against the wall. That was early on, not long after Moriarty and the pool. He’d been spooked, triggered, reminded of things he didn’t want to be reminded of, pushed into an awkward and likely terrifying place. All that could be seen of him was a bit of sheet sticking out from under the cupboard door. He would have had to wrap his arms around his legs tightly and stay that way, asleep, tense, alert to the sounds of nightmarish feet against the floor, a rusty bayonet stabbed into the wall. I left him there. What else could I do? His limp was pronounced the following morning, his sheets smelled vaguely of shoe polish and moth balls.
Every morning he observes the evidence of his nightly struggles and he smooths it all out again; remakes the bed, enforces order, straightens the pillows. It’s incongruous, these military ways against the softness of the bedclothes, the plaited rug on the floor, the gingham curtains Mrs. Hudson (so lovingly) strung over the window. Hospital corners on a (soft, deep double) bed. Incongruous.
You would think the hospital corner ritual comes from John’s time in the military, and of course you would be right. But that’s not all: it is a ritual in which John undoes the chaos of his night terrors. Erasing the violence he does in his sleep. Fighting back. Creating a new reality. I’m not sure he likes the reality he creates. In fact I’m fairly certain he doesn’t, not entirely. And so I disturb it for him. Isn’t that how a person demonstrates affection? Giving him what he wants, what he secretly wants? Disorder, but not his own?
A slight shift; deliberate. His breathing has changed its pattern. John’s awake. Why? Didn’t say anything, didn’t move, didn’t make a sound. He’s turned away from me, surely he can’t—
“Sherlock.” His voice is sleep-rough. (Not even a question.)
(How does he know?)
First instinct: stay stock still, a deer caught in headlights. If I say anything, will he roll over and look at me? (How does he know?) Second instinct, vying with the first (clearly originating from my brain stem rather than my brain) is to run. Clatter down the stairs, duck into my room, slam the door, hide under the blanket. Pretend to sleep. Deny all.
His shoulder shifts, he rolls onto his back. Takes the bottom left hospital corner with him, but doesn’t seem bothered by it. Can see his face now (caught in shadow, his eyes hollowed out of darkness). Sighs, moves his hands. Rubs his fingers across his face, then through his hair.
“You all right? What’s wrong?” He sits up. “Sherlock?”
Have to say something. “I wondered if you were awake.”
“Are you in pain?”
Consider the question a moment: the honest answer is yes. Rib still on fire, face aches in various places, headache. Easy to ignore. “No.”
“Liar.” Puts his feet onto the floor, into his slippers; switches on the light. Over-bright; eyes adjusted to watching him in the darkness. The light is painful. Squint. “Come in here, sit down.” Pads over to his dresser; opens a drawer.
Come into his room, sit on his bed. Try to sit cross-legged by my right leg objects. (Swear under my breath.)
Comes to me in his t-shirt and his boxer shorts. (A slight gap between the bottom edge of his t-shirt and the waistband of his shorts: they are hanging a bit low on his hips. See the abdominal muscles in his pelvis. I may be staring; he doesn’t appear to notice.) Hands me three pills, points to the glass of water sitting on his bedside table.
“I presume these are what you’re here for.” Saved by erroneous presumptions. “My last three, so don’t get any ideas.”
Peer at them. Round and white; narcotic opioid alkaloid. Probably morphine. Probably left over from his recovery. Should have searched his drawers more thoroughly.
Put them on my tongue and taste their bitterness as they begin to dissolve. He picks up the glass of water and hands it to me. Take it. For a moment his fingers are knitted through mine.
The water is lukewarm. The pills slide down my throat. He takes the glass again and puts it back on the bedside table. It sits on a coaster that says “Beautiful Torquay!” and shows a faded waterfront scene. He takes my wrist in his fingers. (Flinch. Still a bit tender.)
“That’s sprained.” He sounds surprised, his index finger pressing lightly against the swelling.
“Barely.” Dismiss it. Should snatch my wrist from his fingers, but don’t want to. His gentle fingers, his trigger finger presses against me.
“Must have hurt though, playing your violin tonight.” Thoughtful. Observant. (True.) “Why do you do that?”
“Helps me think.” He hovers his fingers over my cheek, looks at my bruises.
“You wouldn’t have gone out today, if you were at all sane.” The palm of his hand brushes against my jaw. “But you’re a bit mad, aren’t you.” He says it good-naturedly (affectionately).
“Lestrade would have had another dead body on his hands had I not.” Own voice sounds odd to me. Deeper, more intimate, bit defensive. (Unintentional.) Missing some of its usual bite. Pain dulling my tongue? Or just the effect of sitting on John’s bed. In the middle of the night. Staring at the muscles in his pelvis.
“Right.” The heat of his hand next to my cheek. “I’m sure that’s probably true.” He’s looking hard at my face, then runs his fingers lightly over the bandage across my nose. Close my eyes. He pushes my dressing gown aside and pulls up my t-shirt. Can feel his knee hovering lightly next to my thigh. His hands. One on my waist, as if to steady me, the other tracing the cracked rib. Stifle a groan. “If I’d known you were planning on waltzing around the flat all night I wouldn’t have taken your tape off.”
Huff in response. Was certainly not waltzing. Haven’t waltzed since that disastrous dance class (1982). Facile, boring, tedious, humiliating experience.
“Maybe I’ll put a soft binding on it.” Fingers tracing my sore rib. “That all right?”
“I’m going to find some old bedding.” Stands. Feel the bed right itself with his absence. “Stay here.”
I stay. Empty stomach; lukewarm water. Pills that dissolve. Feel sleepy. Feel groggy. Feel dizzy.
Curled up under the bedclothes. Right side of the bed. John’s bed. Feels so familiar. Comfortable. Perfect. All four of John’s hospital corners destroyed. His bed: a chaos of me. He should be delighted. I have brought him the gift of complete disarray.
“Up you get.” John. Voice seems to come from a distance. He pulls back the blanket and props me up. Feel my feet slither to the floor.
May be floating, possibly suspended in a warm liquid.
Feel the fabric of my dressing gown sliding off me, my t-shirt moving from my shoulders and then over my head.Air: cool against my chest (feels good).
“Sherlock, are you okay?” John. Holding my chin. Open my eyes (heavy). John. Lit from behind and to the left. Light from a lamp on his bedside table. (Yellow-orange glow.) Can recognise him this way too, can see the perfect symmetry of his eyes, the way the firm line of his mouth of set, the left side quirked slightly upwards. His eyes are blue, flecked with brown (if you look close). Complex iris, a mass of pattern and disorder. No sharp edges. No hospital corners. “Sherlock, all right?”
“Yes, fine.” Try to say it. Not sure the syllables come out in the right order.
“Maybe I didn’t need to give you three of those pills.” John’s voice. His hands on my shoulders. John. “Hands on your head, okay?” Moves my arms (made from soft rubber), places my hands behind my neck. “Hold still a moment. Exhale.”
Push the air out of my lungs. Wait. He wraps a strip of flannel around my chest, once, twice. Take a deep breath and feel; constriction of cloth. Exhale again; he wraps another strip under the first one. Feels like being held, (the way John’s bed holds him). Order around chaos. A revelation: he’s my order, I’m his chaos. Yin and yang. Needs me (need him). A perfect match, a perfect pair. Obvious.
“Breathe.” He puts his hands on my chest. “That’s not too tight, is it?”
Don’t really have an opinion. Feels fine. (Better than fine.) Make a noise that could be interpreted either way.
“John.” This is important.
“I’m your chaos.” I gesture toward the bed. No more hospital corners. No dreadful, peaceful, complete order that leaves John empty and riddled with pain and regret. No evidence of his nightmares. Only evidence of me. “I did this for you. Like Tchaikovsky.”
Make the connection: it’s so obvious. A second epiphany. These things I do, I do them because they soothe him, make him feel more connected to the world outside Afghanistan, to me. To soothe him, the way his tightly-made bed soothes him in the night when I cannot. (Couldn’t I? I think I could. Worth a try.) He does the same for me, his order soothes me. Symmetry, like his eyes. “Yes?”
Looks at me (vaguely amused; a bit puzzled). How could he be puzzled? So clear, so obvious.
“Okay.” He says it slowly. “Well thanks.” He laughs. “I appreciate that. I think.”
Yes. I feel a surge of pure joy.
“I hoped you might.” Smile. Lean forward. Forehead touches his. Shut my eyes, feel my lips meet his.
He is warm (tastes like toothpaste).
Put my hand in his hair. Kiss him again. Perfect.
He sighs against my cheek. (Warm.)
Folds me back into his bed, tucks me in. Smooths my hair with his hand, putting me in order. (Soothes.)
“Have a sleep now.”
Feel the mattress dip beside me. John is on the left side, I am on the right. Have imagined this so many times; feels absolutely perfect. Wonderful. He is warm, feels like he might be the source of all warmth. A sun that revolves around a cold planet like me.
(Except that it’s the other way around, isn’t it, the planet goes around the sun? Does that make any sense? Who cares, who cares.)
Shift and press forehead against the back of his neck, hand on his hip.
“Solar system.” Words into his shoulder. “Stars are warm, planets are cold. They rotate.”
“Sleep, Sherlock.” John pats my hand. Sleep.
Morning. Sun from the wrong direction. Bed is soft, bedding is warm, feels odd. Pain. In my head, my nose, my ribs, god. Ribs. Something holding down my chest. Right leg. Wrist. Gummy eyes don’t want to open. Shuffling sound from somewhere else.
In John’s bed. Eyes snap open. It all flashes in front of me: standing at his door, watching him in the dark. He wakes, he sees me, he gives me morphine.
Oh god. Kissed him. Twice. Oh god.
Next to me the bed is not entirely made, not hospital-cornered within an inch of its life, but ordered, flattened. Pillow removed and placed back in an orderly manner, no hint of an indent on it. It looks as though I spent the night here alone (when I know I didn’t).
Feet on the stairs. John’s feet; would recognise the sound of John’s feet anywhere, under any circumstances. Including these. Including the outer edge of a panic attack, my life flashing before my eyes. (Who else would it be?)
Arms and legs feel hot, then cold. Feet reach the top of the stairs and our roles are reversed; he stands at the door (ajar) looking in at me in his bed, surveying the damage of the night. No hospital corners, just chaos. Just his chaos: me. Feel my cheeks burning.
(The damage of the night: how severe?)
“Oh.” His voice. His every day voice, average voice. His everything is fine voice. “You’re awake. Good.” Two cups in his hands. “I was just about to try and wake you.”
“I...” I don’t have a vocabulary for this. How to gauge?
John’s face: free from any of the obvious emotions. No fear, no anger, no distress. Seems calm, clear, relaxed. As always, just as he looks every day when he comes home and fails to notice the disturbance on his bed. (Is this just one more disturbance on his bed?)
“Pain?” Nothing on his face but his professional concern.
Sigh. “Yes.” Too conflicted and uncertain to lie this time. (Of course I’m in pain.)
“I’m out of morphine.” Apologetic. Slightly wry. About to mention it. What do I say?
I choose my vocabulary (“Obviously!”). Falls out of my mouth in a rough voice, more raw than intended, more intimate than intended. Don’t relish embarrassment. He smiles lightly (difficult expression to parse).
“Probably for the best. I have some ibuprofen with codeine, though.” Puts the cups on the the bedside table, takes a bottle out of his pocket. “I picked it up this morning.”
“What time is it?”
“Two o’clock. You’ve been out for a while. Sorry about that, I clearly misremembered how strong those pills were. I shouldn’t have given you three of them.” Shakes two beige pills out of the bottle and puts them in my hand; hands me a cup of tea. “These should be fine, though.”
“Not as good, you mean.”
He smiles. “Should do the trick.”
And just like that. All is forgiven. Relief (but something else accompanies it.) Disappointment. Suppose I didn’t really want to be forgiven. Can’t be folded and tucked under the mattress like every other bit of nightly chaos. But today, it seems, I will be. Smoothed over. No lasting damage.
Drink my tea, take my pills. John goes back downstairs to make me some breakfast. Kick the blankets askew on the right side of the bed, even though it hurts. A little more chaos.
Chapter 3: Penrose Man
Anderson insists on calling it an industrial accident. Accident? With marks like those on the wrists? (Twine: plastic threads. Wrapped around the wrists fourteen times. Snipped off after death with nail clippers, inexpertly disposed of. Will probably find them in a bin nearby.) With the remains of a boot print (industrial, steel-toed, dust and remains from a large flat-pack warehouse, filled primarily with plywood) on the bottom of the trousers, and there, along the left thigh? Did he fail to notice the fingerprint left on the side of the drill that will most assuredly not match those of the murder victim nor anyone who works in the plant? Outrageous! Appalling! And this is what passes for forensic expertise at Scotland Yard? He should never have been allowed to leave primary school. I’ve seen his forensic reports. Still hasn’t learned where to include/not include an apostrophe. Rubbish! He has the gall to disparage me to Lestrade and try to keep me off a crime scene, but he thinks this is an industrial accident? (Clearly, idiots can be fooled by just about anyone.)
Can’t even look at him. “Since you’re clearly both blind and deaf, play dumb as well.” He starts to protest but I tune him out. Wave a hand in his direction, dismiss him. Lestrade will take care of it. Kneel: the rib twinges with a reasonable but not completely debilitating amount of pain. That’s good. Debilitating pain is even more distracting than Anderson’s ponderously plodding thought processes. (I do miss John’s careful ministrations though, which are no longer regularly required. Temptation: get injured in order to be so tenderly cared for again. Pathetic. Ridiculous. But his hands. Those heady moments of closeness. Foreign and awkward and marvelous all at once. Impossible to ever feel used to it.) Slide the phone out of the victim’s pocket; read the last three texts. Lestrade is ordering Anderson off. He’s useless. More than useless; he gets in my way.
The body is surrounded by curls of wood, which are still lightly falling from the machines above like snowflakes. The lathes above had to be stopped quickly, and the refuse from their labours had covered the floor with bits of wood. It smells like a cedar forest, pried open and lightly burned.
Interesting the way the drill corkscrewed through the brain; left an interesting pattern of bone. Broken in every direction, in seemingly arbitrary ways, fractured in wavy lines. Broken like glass, like ice. So many variables inside a living skull. Force plus a slow and steady counter-clockwise spin of uniformly twisted metal creates a unique signature on unsteady human bone. Near-infinite possibilities at each millimetre. And the impact on the brain is spectacular; pulled apart into plaits, draped out of the broken skull like silk. Beautiful. Could gather that brain into a bouquet and put it in a vase to admire it. At least until it started to smell. (More experimentation required: could procure another head from Bart’s, certainly. Drill bits in a box under the stairs. Corkscrew? In the drawer. John’s? Mine? Don’t remember. Does it matter? Might manage to steal industrial drill bit instead; preferable. Place the head in a vice for stability? Or just wedge it between the microwave and the toaster? That would do the trick.)
(John. He might not appreciate another head on the kitchen worktop.)
Glance over at him; he’s looks pale and shocked, distressed. Look back at the body, tilt head, imagine seeing it through John’s eyes, John’s humane, gentle, caring eyes; an awkward death, certainly. Unpleasant. Painful. Frightening. Is that how John sees it? He’s seen enough of the insides of men, he’s not squeamish. Is it empathy? Does he imagine what it would have felt like, himself in this man’s place, a wide corkscrew moving slowly toward him, the minutes between feeling it pierce the skin on his forehead and the point when his brain extrudes through fractures in his skull?
(Wait. No. Stop. Deep breath.)
Don’t much like imagining John as a victim of murder. Makes a bit of panic rise in the back of my throat. Blame Moriarty for that: burn the heart out of me, indeed. If it weren’t for him I might not have noticed, at least, not quite so soon. Caring isn’t a victory, not at all; my feelings put John Watson in far more danger than anything else does. More than the illegal Sig, more than flying bullets and rooftop chases and hired assassins. (If it were me, caught in such a position, the pending victim, hands tied behind my back with Ikea brand twine: an oddly fascinating train of thought. Can think of seven separate ways to escape before the drill bit moved an inch.) But no. Won’t imagine it with John. Not his brain, not his skull. This bloody caring lark.
Watch him: he’s rubbing his forehead, his mouth creased and small. Distaste? Discomfort? Sympathy. (Most likely.) He shakes his head, rocks on his heels. His heart (so selectively) on his sleeve. Makes something twist in my stomach. As much as I don’t understand it, it’s something I love about John. His capacity for sympathy extends out all over the place, touches everyone. Grabby cephalopod of concern.
(Does he find things about me to empathize with? What things? Sally calling me “freak”? My lack of friends but overabundance of enemies? What?)
John’s eyes on the plaits of twisted brain cascading out of that beautifully broken skull. (Just one more head in the fridge. Molly will procure it for me. John will cope.)
He looks up, looks at me. “Uh,” he starts, folding his arms behind his back. “Cause of death is pretty obvious, doubt you need me to tell you he got his head drilled through.”
Smile. It doesn’t bother me when John states the obvious. It should, by all rights, but it doesn’t. I could argue that he does it with a sense of critical self-awareness, like a bit of black humour; I do so love black humour at a crime scene. (It’s so rare, and there are so few with the constitution to indulge.) But it’s not that.
Something about his presence unburies a hidden part of me in these moments, I can’t put my finger it. Well, I can guess: his paradoxical nature. The way he is coherently made up of exact opposites. His voice (strong, kind but ruthless, the voice of a man who’s killed (more than once) for all the right reasons, a voice tinged by a complex morality I will never have the skill or knowledge to entirely unravel or understand) against this backdrop (a body, a murder, evidence, a problem to be solved), his steady hands. His squared fingernails (always clean). His blunt force patience. The broadness of his shoulders as compared to his trim waist. (I don’t need to mention the muscles in his pelvis again, do I? Let’s leave the vulgar lustful thoughts out of it, for now; for now, we’re in public, it’s too much.)
The words he uses to describe me, the tingle I feel in the base of my spine when he looks at me with naked admiration. He makes me bleed emotion. It oozes out of me, messy, uncomfortable, something to be cleaned up, disposed of, healed. Treated. I should hate it, but I don’t. He states the obvious in that voice of his, the same one he uses to tell me I’m amazing, I’m extraordinary, the same one that shouts in the night to the tune of his nightmares and asks me if I want a cup of tea in the mornings. His voice: the seat of all his dimensions, all his sharp edges and his gentleness. The part of him that, right now, in front of Lestrade and Anderson and the nameless faces of the Met, reaches out and caresses me, from his throat to my tympanic membranes. An intimate touch. (But it’s not, it’s really not.)
“There are marks on his wrists,” John says, his eyes flicking over toward Anderson, who is standing several metres away now with his stupid arms crossed in front of his stupid chest. (What does Sally see in him?) John observes what Anderson does not. Of course he does. Smile even more. John goes on, pointing. “He was tied up, he struggled.”
I nod at him. His eyes on me. (I remember his lips against mine; twice. Barely, but I remember.) I can see the lift my approval gives him; it’s subtle, but present. His back a tiny bit straighter, like he’s on the parade square and his superior officer has turned his eyes on him. Prepared to impress. (What is he thinking? Why can’t I tell, why can’t I read it on his open face?) “Estimated time of death?” My voice has taken a softer tone, there’s an intimacy there. The others don’t seem to notice it, but I think John does. A change. Slight. Not deliberate. Revealing.
He crouches down, looks hard at the body again. He touches a hand, runs a latex-covered finger across flesh. “Not more than an hour ago, I’d say.” He looks up at me, confident in his answer, eyes clear. He rises and assumes his vague, newly-civilian take on at ease. I smile at him, a genuine smile, not a calculated one, almost inadvertently. He smiles back. That’s how it is between us now. More genuine? More affectionate? I don’t know. Something like that. (I kissed him and he let me. Twice. I curled up against him, my fingers on the elastic of his shorts, his hipbone hard under my hands, and he let me do that, too.) Watch his face: eyes so uncomplicated, no internal struggle, no awkwardness. Is that defiant, deliberate ignorance of what he must know (or think he knows) about me, or is it casual acceptance? A trade off for a life that keeps him feeling human? Hard to know. He’s smiling at me. Affection. What’s going on in that head of his? Drilling him open wouldn’t give me the answer, would it?
(Oh, very funny.)
It’s been just over a week. One week, and almost nothing has changed. Except for a bit of extra warmth from him, and, presumably from me. As if we have some kind of quiet understanding. But we don’t. I don’t understand at all. He is completely open, yet completely closed. Tantalising. A man made of paradoxes. Impossible, but here, in the flesh. A Penrose man.
“Well?” Lestrade looks a little helpless, his eyebrows raised. I can almost see the question mark over his head. (How would they manage without me?)
I spot a bin out of the corner of my eye and walk toward it. “The bootprints on the body are from a work boot, the sort of work boot worn by industrial employees, the kind with a steel toe. These particular work boots were covered with the remains of dust, glue, plywood flatpack, bits of card. Who does flatpacked glued plywood? Ikea, obviously.” Peer into the bin. (Of course: there it is. Knew it would be. Rounded cuts dug into it from nail clippers. Burst of pride. That was a bit of a shot in the dark from the shape of the remaining threads of plastic twine on the floor.) Lift the bin and bring it back with me toward the body, where Lestrade is looking over at Anderson, and John is staring at me, looking curious, thoughtful (why?), patient, confident. If only I could open up his mind and read it.
“This twine,” peer into the bin, then display it to Lestrade and co., “it’s the kind they use at Ikea to tie boxes together before they deliver them to their customers. This particular twine was used to tie that man’s hands and feet together, and to tie him to that post so that the drill would pierce his skull. You can see the blood on it; it belongs to the victim. So: you’re looking for a warehouse worker from probably the Wembley Ikea who was temporarily missing from his post after, let’s say,” glance at my watch, “one o’clock in the afternoon, but back before three.” Pull out a brush and dust the drill; the fingerprint there is suddenly blatantly obvious. “This is his fingerprint. You probably have it on file. This isn’t his first crime; given how terrible he is at hiding his tracks, it’s probably not the first time you’ve caught him.”
“Run that print,” Lestrade says, and Anderson, looking venomous, complies. “And why would he murder a man and try to make it look like an industrial accident?” Lestrade asks.
“Try being the operative word.” That was meant for Anderson (of course.) He rolls his eyes. “Easy,” I glance at John, who has that fascinated look on his face, that would be unbelieving except that he knows exactly what to expect by now. A breath. Deliver the punchline. “Our victim spent his lunch hour with a lady friend, a lady friend with a husband, or a boyfriend, it’s unclear. If I had to guess, I’d say husband.” Crouch, open up the right hand pocket of the victim’s trousers so that Lestrade can see its contents. “See: condoms, he comes prepared.” Smirk. Pull the victim’s phone from my own pocket; hand it to Lestrade. “Last three texts on his phone are suggestive in nature, both of a sexual liaison with a woman and of the necessity of secrecy. The woman, obviously, has a jealous husband prone to violence. That jealous husband is our Ikea worker. He’ll finish his shift in an hour.”
“Amazing,” John says. It feels no less good to hear him say it this time than it did the first. “Extraordinary.” He grins and walks toward me. Lestrade is barking orders; Anderson has finished with the fingerprint and is skulking out. The coroner is removing the body. “Well done,” John says, then reaches up and puts his hands on my shoulders.
For a moment I think he’s going to hug me, or pull me forward and kiss me, and while both of those outcomes would be most welcome from John, they both equally frighten me. (Why? Uncertainty, inexperience? The myriad rules involved in these social interactions is dizzying. Every direction looks like a misstep. What do I need to do to ensure John’s good feelings? So easy to do/say the wrong thing and disappoint, frustrate, or (possibly worse) amuse. I may feel a bit of apprehension. I may be marginally afraid.) He sees what must read as distress on my face and his expression changes. “You’ve got--” he starts, then brushes at my shoulders. Wood chips, curls of wood shavings, sawdust. “You were standing in the worst of it. Lean down a little, let me get it out of your hair.”
I bow forward, which is opportune, since I can feel myself blushing a little. These strange relationship dances, where nothing is certain and there are no obvious facts, make me regress into my adolescent awkwardness. I would take a moment to feel some resentment about that, but is John running his fingers through my hair, which feels far better than it has any right to. I close my eyes to keep the dust out of them, to focus on the feeling of his fingers against me. He shakes the wood shavings out of my fringe, gently, from the top of my head, ruffles his fingers through the back, slides them through stray curls at the sides. He runs his index finger around the curve of my left ear, than the right. Runs his hand across the back of my neck. Then starts picking pieces out of my hair gently one by one, untangling them from strands and blowing on his fingers to make the whorls of wood flutter to the ground. I choke back the hum that wants to edge out from my throat and subdue it into a sigh.
“There,” he says, smoothing over my fringe again. I open my eyes. The look on his face; perfectly pleasant, perfectly normal, but there’s something else there. Affection, surely; is it friendly affection? I can’t tell. (Amusement? He’s not laughing, though there’s a slight smile on his face. Tenderness? It’s a fine line.) Pride in my work, still the traces of awe that he gets when he watches me. Is there desire there? (For me?) Nothing overt, nothing inappropriate. I don’t know. What would I do if I saw it, recognized it? (run/hide/collapse/burst into flame/cry/cheer/laugh/triumph/push him up against the wall and have my way with him?) If only I could examine the inside of his brain as easily as one from Bart’s, as easily as the one the coroner is pushing into a body bag. Too many unanswered questions.
I could just ask, I suppose. But that seems like cheating.
Chapter 4: The Heart is Not Heart-Shaped
Rayleigh scattering has diffused the shorter green and blue wavelengths in the remaining light of the sun, leaving only red and orange across the London skyline.
Sky. To date I have spent brain power only on considering what descends from it and alters the conditions of human criminal activity, not the sky itself. Peer up at it now: a great empty space. Initial observations suggest that it is largely pointless. Merely absence of a ceiling or upper floor. Functionally, the origin location of weather patterns. Rain, snow, fog, sleet; these things can be evidence, important to note. Otherwise, it is merely the Cartesian coordinate Z (up). How tedious. The cosmos, largely, is boring: there are no motives in space. So far, no murders, no crimes. Dull. Large balls of gas on fire and moving around in aimless circles. Tiny points of light. Bright red glow, pushed out from the edge of the world, slowly dimming. (Dimming light can shift the view of a crime scene; things can be hidden in different varieties of light. Worthy of notice, at least.) Bright point of orange behind the skyline; fingers of red that fade into blue-blackness.
People appear to find this process romantic, the sun moving behind the horizon. Why? (Does John find it romantic? Probably. Thought stings. He does not sit and moon over sunsets with me. Would I want him to?)
(Could I find this process interesting, if John were sitting here next to me, mooning at the setting sun?)
Is it the colour? Do reddish hues bear some particular significance that prompts an emotion or amorous action? Would staring at a wall painted red incite the same reaction? Could I paint the entire flat red as a means of provoking John in an amorous direction?
Pathetic. It would only make him think of someone else.
Phone buzzes. Pull it out, look at the screen. It’s a text from John. Can’t help but look. It’s the latest of fifteen such texts, each more anxious than the next.
Where are you?
Can’t hear tone of voice through a text, but I can sense it anyway. He is still angry with me.
It’s not my fault his date’s hair caught on fire. She was dangling it into the candle on the table, I didn’t drag her head over it. I didn’t even ask her to turn her head away from me like that. Her decision. I just wanted to ask John a simple question or two about liver decomposition, I couldn’t very well get his opinion without the liver in question present, could I?
Another buzz. Check screen. Two messages. Stomach does another little turn.
Sherlock, please answer me. Where are you?
Mrs. Hudson is starting to get worried, it’s not just me.
Red is also the colour of warning; signs, portside lights on ships, traffic signals. Red is the colour of blood, which is, in a way, another kind of warning: stop, you’ve gone too far, broken the skin, broken a body. Hearts look reddish when you first see them inside a body, but once cleaned of blood, they’re predominantly yellowish, like chicken skin. Children draw them and colour them in red, presumably because they have failed to learn this simple fact. Perhaps they have seen only living, beating hearts, seen open-heart surgeries on their relentless tellies (do parents let their children watch open heart surgeries on telly?) and failed to understand that the red around a heart is only the blood. Do parents want their children to imagine only bloodied hearts? Presumably so; live things are (apparently) more pleasing to people than dead things are. (Regardless of its colour, the heart is certainly not heart-shaped, which is an odd failure of the English language, and a bizarre and erroneous anatomy lesson for children. I suppose it’s like Santa Claus: one of the things adults lie to children about by default, with no shame or remorse.)
If I don’t hear from you in the next 5 minutes I’m going to assume foul play. If you left your phone somewhere I may have to kill you.
Red is the colour of ripeness, of sexual readiness. Is that why the red sky is considered romantic? Does it remind (potential?) lovers of exposed and engorged genitalia? Staring at sunset light isn’t one of the things the very religious list as dangerous (such as dancing), so perhaps not.
Another buzz. Check. Not John, Lestrade.
Have you got lost? Why are you ignoring John? Do I need to send a patrol car?
Hmph. Clearly John has moved up a link in the chain of command. Well, fine. Send a text to John, ignore Lestrade.
I’m here. SH
Here? Where’s here?
I’m at 221b, of course. SH
You are not. I’m in the flat, and I can tell you’re not here. You’re pretty hard to miss.
Look up. SH
I glance at my watch; it will be interesting to see how long it takes John to figure it out. I can almost feel the neurons in his brain reaching out and trying to form new connections. Up up up what’s up? Sky. What separates us from the sky? Ceilings, upper floors. He already knows I’m not on the third floor; he would have checked. Mrs. Hudson checked the other units, even. So what’s left? What protects us from the rain, the snow, the sleet?
“Sherlock!” John, shouting from the street. Lean forward, peer down. Glance at watch. Two minutes, forty seconds. Feel a stab of pride; general population would have taken at least two minutes longer. Shift a bit; roof tiles digging into thighs slightly. “Jesus Christ, Sherlock, don’t move!” Mrs. Hudson clatters out onto the street, her kitten heels tapping against the pavement. She bursts into tears.
In a matter of seconds John is launching himself through the small attic window and onto the roof, panting. “Sherlock,” he says. “Don’t.”
He’s treading gently on the slopped roof, moving carefully but determinedly. Soldiers fear no shifting roof tile under their feet.
“I’m not going to jump.”
“No?” He grabs me by the collar. “Move back from the edge, please.” He doesn’t like my legs dangling over the eaves, apparently. His hand is hot and insistent against the back of my neck. He tugs. Plant my palms against the rough roof, shift backward and upward, and again, up the slope of the roof until my back is pressed against the chimney and John has me pinned by the shoulders with both hands. He’s bracing himself against the roof tiles, pitched to the side, panting hard; his precarious position puts him in more danger then I was. His face is so close, his breath against my cheek. I put a hand on his chest, push him back, force him to sit, steady and secure like I am. His arm slips against the chimney in the curve of my back, his hand on my hip. Safe.
“Really,” I say. “There was no danger until you arrived.”
John sighs. “What are you doing up here? And why have you been ignoring my texts?”
“Red,” I say. I move to point at the dregs of the sunset, but on impulse he catches my arm and holds on to it, pressed it into his stomach. I let him have it, let my hand grow limp against his thigh. Denim under my fingers. Heat. I can feel his breathing, my arm pressed against him, his heart beating so fast. He really thought I meant to jump. Odd; have I ever seemed like the kind to commit such a pointless act? Extremely short term flight isn’t something that particularly interests me.
John stares out at the London skyline, watching the sunset. “Did you,” he starts. “You didn’t crawl up into the attic and through that little window to sit here and watch the sunset, did you?”
“It appears so.” That’s neither a yes nor a no. I feel his fingers shift on my hip, tentative, cautious.
“You were hiding from me.” He sounds hurt, oddly, not angry. His deduction, of course, is correct.
“Not hiding,” I say. “Of course I’m not. I’m examining a natural phenomenon people tend to find romantic. I thought I’d see if there’s anything in it. I presumed you’d be enjoying it with Katy.”
“Cathy,” John says. “Her name is Cathy. And no, after I put her hair out, she wanted to go straight home. Alone.”
I have no answer to that. I’m certainly not going to apologize. Not my fault. So instead I drag my fingers along the seam of his jeans, watch his face out of the corner of my eye. He’s watching the sunset. It bathes his face in red. Red for warning (stop, danger, blood and pain and damage) and for invitation, sexual readiness (go go go go). I am paralysed between the two.
I rest my cheek against his shoulder.
After a moment he leans his face into my hair. I feel him sigh, his whole body trembles slightly. He puts his hand on my shoulder and squeezes. This means something. (What?)
Acknowledgment of physical closeness, beyond friendship? Acknowledgement that we have been this close before, huddled together in communicative intimacy? I am consumed with want, though I’m uncertain about exactly what it is I long for. Closeness, surely. Skin. Contact. Friction. John. Fumblings in dormitories have not prepared me for this. I am caught off-guard, no matter how much I have stared at him. No matter how much I have watched him, studied him. I am out of my depth. I do not know how to live with the want, or the having. He leans down slightly and kisses my forehead.
“You know I...” he starts. I don’t interrupt, I want to know what he’s going to say. I don’t move. He pauses. His heart is beating very fast. I press my fingers against his wrist, I want to count, to feel it. “I don’t...” another start. No conclusion. He sighs. I count the beats of his heart. I feel an odd sense of fear that I can’t make sense of. (Danger? Where? Inside him; coming out.)
“We could do this,” he says finally. His voice is very, very quiet, as if he wants plausible deniability. Up here on the roof, no one to witness it; his voice so quiet he could pretend the words had never been spoken. “We could. I don’t usually...” he sighs again, presses his face into my hair. He can feel him breathing me in. “I’m straight, you know. And we’re mates. You’re my best mate, you’re more than that, you know that.” I don’t move. I feel numb, blank. I can imagine seventeen different ways this speech of John’s can end, and I’m terrified of all of them. “I wouldn’t have thought...” most of these sentences seem to trail off. I shift slightly, brush my eyelashes against his neck. He shivers. “There are things...you wouldn’t like, Sherlock. Relationships, they take a lot of work, you know. They’re...messy and there are needs and compromises, and...”
He’s right, of course. There’s a reason I have avoided relationships. Tedious. Boring. Monotonous. I have no real interest in spending time worrying about someone else’s needs. Hurt feelings. Demands. Being expected to lie about some things and pet someone’s ego. Make someone a priority, over the work, over me. No.
“We could...” he starts again. “I understand, I mean, I feel it, there’s a pull there, I know. I think...” his hand has shifted from my shoulder to my neck, gently, softly, like his voice. Into my hair, onto my cheek. “Well, I never thought I’d feel that for a bloke, so you’re the exception. So we could, just for fun. To get it out of our systems. You’re not used to having people this close, I understand that. We could, but I think you’d regret it.”
“I’m not...” he sighs. He leans forward and kisses me on the forehead again. It’s a safe spot in John’s mind. Safe, not sexual, not crossing the line. Affectionate. He wants. He wants to kiss me on the mouth, but he’s afraid. His jagged pulse. His fear makes me afraid. John fears nothing except this? Me? Kissing me? Being close to me? (Being cast off by me?) “I know what would happen, Sherlock. I’ve been trying to avoid it, getting too close to this line. If I step over it...” His fingers are carding through my hair. It feels like goodbye. Something inside of me is being torn into pieces. “I don’t think I could shut it off. You wouldn’t like it. You would loathe it. I would get hurt and grumpy and you would hate me. It would ruin everything.”
A revelation. I have been so stuck in the wanting, I can’t even imagine all the pieces that come next. From here, wrapped up in John, smelling him, feeling his lips on me, his fingers in my hair, clinging to him like a terrified child, I can’t imagine it. I can’t even imagine the having. (How would it be? Knees and elbows and teeth and tongues and logistics I can’t entirely fathom. I don’t know.) John is three steps ahead of me, he’s moved past wanting and having into my inevitable boredom, rejection. I do get bored. Tired. Frustrated. I have got bored of every person I’ve ever met. Why would he be different? (But he is different. I have no proof, no proof. There can be no conclusions, no assertions, without proof.) If a case goes on more than a week I get tired of it, too. He’s right to think ahead. My brilliant John; he is the consulting detective of amorous relationships. He’s right.
I let go.
He lets go too. Plausible deniability. I feel loose, my cables cut, like I’m drifting. I lean against the chimney for a second before I stand, my legs wobbly and weak. I walk down the roof to the eaves. I feel crumpled, defeated. For the first time since I was thirteen (ridiculed, beaten by classmates, called so many names, rejected, shamed, laughed at) I feel a deep-seated hatred of myself, and wish I could be just a little more normal, a little more like an ordinary person, with ordinary wants and an ordinary brain. Less destructive. Someone who wouldn’t come to hate John, the least hateable person there is. Someone who could just love him without getting bored of it. (How can I become that person? What do I need to do?)
“Sherlock,” John says, louder this time. “Don’t. You’re scaring me.”
I know. I know, John. I scare you. I know.
The sun is gone. No more red in the sky. The sky: a big gaping maw of emptiness, of nothing, filled with tiny points of meaningless light.
Chapter 5: The (7%) Solution
The small case is so familiar, though I haven’t touched it in years. Sense-memory is tenacious; the weave of the fabric pulled tightly across it is achingly comforting under the pads of my fingers. Unhook the clasp. It falls opens easily; (relatively) new hinges. The syringe gleams slightly in the light, as if going out of its way to tempt me. Routing through boxes and drawers to find it, sitting here with it on my knees, a bottle sitting on a stack of books on the table, makes a perfectly clear demonstration that further temptation is no longer required.
The ornate silver work, antique glass, the slightly stiff piston are more appropriate tools for the task at hand (fundamental alteration, escape, flight of inexplicably delicious fancy, shifting from the uncomfortable now to the tolerable future) than a plastic disposable. Two needles nestled above the syringe in a bed of the softest velvet; (relatively) new. Nineteenth century needles are thick enough to be satisfyingly painful to use, but leave telltale marks. Took weeks to find someone willing to retrofit a hypodermic set to twenty-first century standards, gauged specifically to my drugs of choice. Two kinds; one for euphoria, one for oblivion. It’s been seven years since I last put the needles away.
Bit surprised Mycroft hasn’t managed to confiscate this case yet. Perhaps he understands its power as a talisman and has let me keep it deliberately, a reminder. It is dusted over with memories; days and nights that blended together, the warm glow of comfort that comes from an injection, the rapid speed of my brain, joy. Peace. Completeness. Calm. There are no faces in those memories, though there must have been faces. The memories are all visceral. The longing is nearly intolerable. But only nearly.
The front door opens, then shuts. The sound of familiar feet on the stairs, laden. Snap the case shut, slip it under the sofa. Bottle palmed and into a pocket. Hiding in plain sight (from me), but invisible to everyone else (John). Don’t need the row. Feel an unusual pang of guilt, embarrassment. The tiniest bit of shame. (I should be stronger than this, better than this. I shouldn’t have to resort to this again, but the mess of emotional complications is not my bailiwick. Everyone should know that already.)
I will turn back to the cocaine, that decision is already made. It’s been made for days. I have no internal debate on that point. If not today, then very soon. Mycroft will be livid; Lestrade will be disappointed. John will be sad, uncomfortable, and be either a) driven toward me, to care for me, the good doctor that he is, fighting for my life and my health with vigour and righteousness, or, b) he will be driven away from me, putting distance between the (heartbroken) hopeless junkie and his guilt-ridden self. I hope for the former (the dregs of my romantic heart, rearing its head for one last nudge at John’s oddly-rational stance on the matter) but I expect the latter. Either will be a kind of relief, and will establish how the months ahead will play out. Will set the new ground rules of this relationship. There is logic to it. Logic, and relief. Chemical and actual. It is my (7%) solution. Open the paper across my knees.
“Don’t mind me,” John says, plastic bags in his hands. I don’t. I flip over a page.
John is relentlessly normal, a study in average. It is obviously deliberate. Not a hair different. A demonstration that no line has yet been crossed, when we both know that one has been, crossed and scattered in a confusing pattern in every direction. We will pretend otherwise until it feels true. Then we will go on pretending.
“Tea?” He’s already put the kettle on. I glance up at him, his eyes on me. His eyes don’t lie well. They are filled with something unnameable, a jumble of fear and concern and uncertainty. I smile, pretend (that’s what we do now) I don’t see it there.
“Please,” I say. “Thank you.” The polite words. The words I should say and mostly don’t. They feel appropriate now. John stiffens slightly; he doesn’t want me to be polite. I think it may even hurt him a bit that I am. I feel no guilt at all about that. “That’s very kind of you,” I add, hoping to underscore the point.
He turns back to the groceries. “Case?” For a fraction of a second I think he means the one under the sofa, and I feel a jolt of panic. He can’t find out my plan so soon; it needs to be a surprise. The surprise of me, dangerously delirious with the high, changed and vulnerable and at his mercy. I need that shock to push John a) toward me (preferably), or b) away from me. One of the other. Him discovering my plan too soon would alter the variables. But then I realize; he hasn’t seen it. He doesn’t know. He is merely changing the subject, wants to know if I’ve got a new case to work on, if Lestrade has called, if I’m taking up any of the various potential clients who have left frantic messages on my website. Of course. Neither of us really want to vocalize the conversation our bodies are constantly having with each other. He’s merely changing the subject. Relief.
“Possibly. I’m expecting a visitor shortly. Something about a missing parent.” Boring, really. Not something I would normally take on, but I want the distraction. The awkwardness with John the last few days has been agony.
I blame him for it, but I don’t at the same time. That’s worst of it, really; I want to blame him. But it’s me who’s to blame, which is harder. Engaging emotions is a dangerous thing; messy. Targets are all wrong, no sense of direction, these fraught metaphorical bullets flying everywhere, hitting both of us. The absence of John’s familiar touch; the little pats of his hands against mine that used to be commonplace are suddenly gone. Rather than brush an eyelash from my cheek he just points it out, brushes his own face instead in demonstration. He smiles at me more. He’s gentler with me. He didn’t get angry about the rack of blood in vials next to the leftover takeaway, or the rotting liver (still in the fridge). He is more patient. It is disturbing. I feel a temptation to get up and help him with the groceries, but that would be too polite, and would hurt him even more.
Deep breath. John’s admission is, after all, flattering; I am an exception. I have not been rejected, but instead have been gifted an extended commitment. We forgo the limited and temporary desires of the flesh (which, let’s remember, are not only mine, but also his) in order to extend our friendship, our working relationship, our symbiotic partnership, into the distant future. Perhaps as long as we live. That’s like a vow. A promise. There should be comfort in that, no? I look for it. Rationally what he’s offered me is a richer, more complete promise than the other, the carnal things (I long for) that happen in my imagination, the things I am (unsuccessfully) willing myself not to (ever) imagine (again). Rationally I should be pleased. But there is an emptiness that is leaving me hovering on a precipice. John is trying to pull me back. I am resisting, and I don’t know why.
I have developed an uncomfortable tension between my rational self and my (newly-confronted) irrational self. Perhaps I too need a useless therapist.
“Private client?” John asks.
“Yes,” I say. “It won’t be very interesting.” He stiffens again. I was about to suggest he not feel that he needs to involve himself, that he go visit his mates or watch telly while I go solve some pathetic little domestic mystery, and he knows it. The idea of leaving him behind is tempting, even though having him with me is both socially and practically useful. Why don’t I want him with me now? Am I running away again, from all this awkwardness, the emotional work that has to be done to set right what was overturned? He’s right. We need to work through this. This is the fight for the future, the salvage. I can pretend the precipice isn’t between us until it feels as if it isn’t. “I would appreciate your help, you can keep me from being too rude when I get bored of her.” Flip another page in the newspaper. See him relax out of the corner of my eye.
“I can do that,” he says. He opens the fridge. “I can definitely do that.”
The client arrives an hour later. By then I have managed to put both the Victorian case and the bottle of cocaine in my bedroom, in the space that neither John nor Lestrade will ever manage to find, but I can still feel the texture of the case, the coolness of the bottle, I can hear the ticking of the mental countdown with my addiction at the bottom. Waiting. Once this case is complete, I will return to it, vicious side effects and all. At least it will be different.
She stands by the door. John has just finished washing the dishes, he’s drying his hands and turns to look at her. She introduces herself.
“I’m Mary,” she says. “Mary Morstan.”
Chapter 6: What We Know About Mary
Obvious what’s going to happen. So obvious anyone would be able to see it (even bloody Anderson). John: pitched forward, hanging on her every word. She smiles at him, flirts. Reaches out, pats his hand; grabs on to his fingers once in a while. His hands move closer and closer to her, he’s willing her to take them. He licks his lips; I know what that means. Rubs his fingers through his hair. He’s anticipating. She touches his shoulder, he smiles. He laughs at what she says, even though it’s not very funny. For future reference: bringing a client along for dinner with John is not a terribly good idea.
I can still remember with perfect clarity the feeling of his lips on my forehead. His fingers in my hair. Sense memories are powerful and can hurt. (Make a note.)
Fifteen minutes into this case, and I can already see where it will end. An empty box, a solved case, and a new woman in John’s life. A perfect excuse, a perfect solution. Better than mine, I must admit. A more complete distraction, a barrier. Something to remind John of his total normality, his perfect heterosexual future. Relegate me (whatever he felt for me, feels for me, might have come to feel for me) to its rightful place in the shadows. Not as invigorating as cocaine. Just as many nasty side effects (probably).
So: return to the cocaine, Y/N? I’m suddenly undecided. Lounging high and contented on the sofa still seems appealing, but in the state he’s in John may not even notice my altered state.
She flirts a lot, this one; more than most. More than she realizes. Flirts with me even, and no one flirts with me. (Why would they? My default reaction to flirting is to glare. Flirting is a form of manipulation, and I will not be manipulated. Insulting.) She knows she’s flirting with John, though, she’s doing it on purpose, and John is flirting back. Tight feeling in my chest. It hurts. Emotions are useless. Get in the way. (I never imagined it would go any way but this.)
(It was going to happen sooner or later. I suppose sooner is better than later.)
If I am the exception, the one he would consider, the one he might have come to love, to make love to, to fall in love with (all so very hypothetical, mythological, thought experiment) I would have failed, miserably. I couldn’t be her, I couldn’t be him. I can’t smile and giggle and bat my eyelashes like that. Act fascinated by boring conversation. Laugh at nothing. (Well, I can. Of course I can. But only playacting, only for a part. Only to confuse, manipulate, obfuscate. It would never be genuine, or honest. Are they always playacting, ordinary people? Or am I missing a piece?) I would have failed, it would have been awkward and uncomfortable.
This is for the best, really. (It is. Definitely.)
(Find a distraction. Heart thumps painfully. Distraction.)
What we know about Mary: her father disappeared six years ago under mysterious circumstances. That much she’s told us. What she didn’t tell us is that her mother died when Mary was very young. She was raised by her father, barely; he was largely absent from her life, engrossed in his job, didn’t know what to do with a daughter. Possibly blamed her for her mother’s death. A guess: she probably looks just like her mother, a painful reminder. (Once we see her flat: remember to check for pictures of her mother. Prove deduction correct. Stab of pride would be nice, amidst all these other emotional stabbings.) She grew up with a long series of her father’s pretty, glamorous girlfriends paraded in front of her. Learned to flirt with men, learned that flirting (and, of course, seducing) men results in male approval. In short: Daddy issues. No end of them.
“I’ve read your blog,” Mary says to John. “It’s so fascinating!” The kinds of words people use when the flirt; always superlatives. “You’re a really great writer.”
Have to give her credit for knowing how to pet John’s ego. He wouldn’t respond so well to talk about his past bravery or heroism; women who are impressed by his profession are usually interested primarily in money and John knows that. Talk about his soldiering past or his hours at the surgery are likely to leave him bored and uncomfortable. But his writing; that’s something he’s actively interested in getting better at. Praise John’s writing and he will turn slightly pinkish. (Useful to note.)
“You think so?” John asks. It’s working. He’s flattered. Pleased. Oh, John.
At least she isn’t lying to him. I wouldn’t stand for that. She means it.
(I suppose he has gotten better at it, the writing. If that’s your sort of thing.)
She’s been married. At least twice, likely three times. Not just marks on her fingers; her jewelry. Three earrings in each ear, expensive, more expensive than she can afford; two sets purchased by one man, one by another. (No one who had bought the first two would deign to purchase the third; radically different tastes.) Watch her glance around the room. She smiles at John, then glances at me. Smiles that flirtatious smile in spite of my obvious rejection of it. Clearly: she’s prone to infidelity. Two marriages, likely three: all of them ended in divorce. All of them likely ended when her husband(s) discovered her serial infidelity. Warn John? Not really my place, is it. He wouldn’t appreciate it. He would consider it rude, mean, unkind. Three marriages: more than three infidelities. Necklaces (two currently worn), bracelet: gifts from lovers? She likes jewelry as gifts from men, hoards it. One necklace, a heart pendant, simple, bought in the early 80s: a gift from her beloved but distant father? Of course! Still looking for the perfect father figure to replace him. A modest hero.
She’s not proud of it though; anxiety has left marks on her face. Struggles with it. (Therapist? Unlikely. Deep-seated shame, not ready to share it. Probably needs one.)
“Where did you go to school?” At least she’s interested in education; some of John’s dates have been more interested in the dance club circuit, had a taste for the Daily Mail. Not Mary: she works at a university. She keeps up with the news. She reads. (She has two books in her purse: one, literary fiction, the other, fantasy fiction. Enjoys fiction as art, but also for fun. Not a snob. Prefers red wine; a small new stain on the pages.)
Based on her loose definition of business casual, the vague smell of book mold that she can’t entirely wash off and the sliver of a date stamp on the left finger, she is employed in a undergraduate library; probably as a librarian. One that’s open late; possibly all night. Given her address, probably in central London. She doesn’t keep a very good sleep schedule (takes an insomniac to know one on sight); likely that she’s responsible for at least some of the night shifts. She knows how to talk to strangers. She charms almost everyone she meets. (Not me, of course. Not me. Certainly John.)
Three cats (one of them a ginger male). So she is a certified librarian, then.
Some money problems; her rent is too probably high. Likely in significant debt. No wonder this supposed treasure of her father’s is of such interest (is that cruel?). Shoes are scuffed, clothes have been washed too many times. She is relatively neat and clean, but she doesn’t have any extra income to devote to her appearance. She needs a haircut; has been trimming her own fringe (badly). Her makeup is cheap, but she’s kept it minimal enough that it doesn’t matter.
“Imperial, or LSE?”
They both turn to me, startled. I interrupted something.
“What?” John asks.
“Mary is a librarian,” I point out. “Which library, Mary? Imperial, or LSE?”
She looks confused, as people usually do. “LSE.”
“He’s got a gift,” John explains. “It’s amazing, isn’t it? He can tell almost everything about you just by looking at you.”
Mary looks decidedly uncomfortable. You can divide the world into two kinds of people (were you so inclined); the people who are uncomfortable and/or afraid at the idea that I can determine most (if not all) of the major themes of their lives within the first two minutes of our acquaintance, and those who relish it. The latter group is very small. So far it consists of one.
“Not a gift,” I say. “Just observation.”
“Definitely a gift,” John says. He’s smiling at me now. “Sherlock’s a genius.”
“So,” Mary asks, dropping a hand onto John’s knee as she leans a little toward me across the table. “What else can you tell me about myself, then?” It’s a challenge. There’s an edge of something in her eyes; it’s not fear, it’s defiance. Who am I in this game of Impress Daddy? The father that remained distant, the successful businessman, the one with the brilliant ideas that (probably) got him killed? Clearly. John is the soft part of him, the fantasy, the part she invented in her loneliest moments, the loving part she hoped existed and so craved. And I am the part that kept him from her. The part she hated. The obstacle.
Perhaps I should have been a psychiatrist. A bracingly honest psychiatrist. Not enough dead things in psychiatry, unfortunately.
“Your mother died when you were very young. You look like her. You work occasional night shifts, which works for you because you’re a frequent insomniac. You’ve been married,” narrow my eyes at her, glance at John; just how bracingly honest should I be? “At least twice, and you have three cats. One’s ginger. You prefer red wine.”
Mary’s eyes go wide. She is visibly shaken, thinks I’m putting her on, playing some kind of trick. Resist a satisfied grin.
“Is he wrong about anything?” John asks. He looks pleased, delighted, in fact. The warning about the marriages seems to have flown straight over his head. Perhaps I shouldn’t be so subtle.
“No,” Mary says.
“Amazing,” John says. He takes her hands, as if it’s her who’s amazing. As if it’s her who’s just proven a point. Been proven right. I feel an overwhelming urge to pout.
“Hardly.” Neither of them notice my modesty. They are looking into each other’s eyes as if they’ll find something there. I look away.
A week later, the case is solved, and John and Mary, relative strangers, attached at the hip, still staring into each other’s eyes, are engaged. (Engaged!) I inject one generous dose of my 7% solution that evening and wait for John to come home. He doesn’t.
Chapter 7: Surplus Data
Sirens. A woman shouting in the street: an argument with a boyfriend. (She’s drunk.) A slick night in London, black sky, wet street. Clap of cheap heels on the pavement, dull thump of a bass line from the bowels of a club. Sounds seem so much more prominent when I’m alone. Harder to ignore. Pressing in on me. No easy distraction at hand. Was John’s flesh absorbing the surplus data around me? (Ha!) In any case. Different. (How can one person, one, make the world seem so different to me? One man against the six billion nameless. It makes no sense.)
John: in Clapton with a change of clothes and a bottle of wine. He’s haunting Mary’s dingy little flat tonight; back to Baker St. tomorrow while she’s on the night shift. Possibly also the night after that, depending on Mary’s other various commitments. John: A shared asset, like a child shifting between not-entirely-amicably divorced parents. A toothbrush left with each. Appeasement. Half the week, every other weekend. A satisfactory truce.
Nights without John are dismal. Dark (no one there to switch on the lights), cold (no one to switch on the heating and complain loudly about the radiators, or to shove open the flue and build a fire in the grate, or drop a blanket on my lap with a concerned look or an exasperated sigh) and quiet (no terrible telly, no random conversation, no soft sounds of steady breathing; no throat-clearing or pages turning; no rumbling kettle or offer of tea; a complete absence of the unmistakable sound of denim rubbing against denim as he crosses one leg over the other). For the first time in years, I feel no desire whatsoever to pick up my violin. Not when he’s gone. The absence of an audience (other than me) used to be a gift. That is no longer the case.
My bottle of cocaine has vanished; not entirely certain who to thank for that, John or Mycroft. (At a guess, Mycroft; John probably unable to avoid admonishing me immediately had he found it, while Mycroft, clearly more capable of finding my most secret hiding places, unlikely to admit to breaking into the flat under any circumstances. Silent disappearance of an illegal substance: reads Mycroft.) Probably for the best. The high is far more short-lived than I remembered and the day after is extraordinarily unpleasant. I had forgotten. Pain is not something of which the human brain takes a lasting imprint. (I take some cold comfort in this fact.)
Could always get more (if required). Biding my time.
Taxi rides without John are familiar, but uncomfortable. Empty seat next to me makes the universe feel oddly canted to the right (the left is missing in action, awkwardly deleted): a constant reminder of loss. (Temporary. I get him back tomorrow. Tomorrow: he will sit next to me, the universe will right itself, he will listen to me, tell me I’m amazing and extraordinary and the dull but persistent ache in my gut will recede.)
Taxi is moving marginally faster than the top speed the accompanying traffic has mutually agreed upon (significantly over the posted speed limit, but we all know that’s merely a suggestion). Acceptable; arriving sooner is worth the increase in risk to my health and safety. All risks, both minor and major (leaping off rooftops, pursuing gun-wielding criminals down dark alleys, breaking and entering, injectables) feel significantly more acceptable when John is no longer next to me. Had not noticed the degree to which his mere presence was modulating my behaviour. (Do I take more risks now because I no longer feel responsible for his safety, or because I care less about my own? Or both? Will I develop a fear of danger on the days when he’s with me, and foster a dangerously risky lifestyle on the days he’s not? Russian Roulette.)
There is no strict schedule posted on the fridge. John appears sometimes out of the blue, a surprise (the very best). Mary works nights three days a week (true; verifiable); she has a book club (true, though infrequent) and a bridge night with her friends (also true; sporadic). There are book sales, charity events, taking shifts from peers, calls from struggling faculty members, a small amount of private tutoring (the ultimate in inaccessibility). She volunteers at a homeless shelter (Strictly true, but with no posted hours and very little direct oversight, difficult to confirm precisely in retrospect). Her life is full, (full of potential excuses, plausible alibis) and the complex mess of it leaves John ample time to return to Baker St. (to me) to satisfy his need for the battleground of London (his need for me). Mary lives the life of a serial philanderer, even when she isn’t unfaithful. She is a woman who would never lose track of her phone, and will never let John see her incoming texts without looking at them first. She cannot be pinned down, cannot be scheduled, cannot be (so she thinks) traced or questioned.
She is not cheating on him. Not yet. But her life will make it easy to hide once she starts. (Seems inevitable. Unstoppable. Compulsive behaviour.)
Tell John? How? How to broach the subject without him storming off, livid? If he asks. If he asks, I will tell him. Gently. In the abstract. No accusations (none currently to make). Perhaps suggest a therapist for her. Or suggest she have a bracing chat with me. Do I want to scare her into fidelity, or scare her away from John? (Examine: do I want her to cheat on him, break his heart, leave him twisted and broken, so that he will come back to me and I can put him back together for the second time? Answer seems obvious, but I remain honestly uncertain. The stakes are too high. John’s happiness. At least with Mary I have John part time. With someone else, I might lose him altogether.
Her schedule is random and unpredictable (deliberately); she can drag him back to her at a moment’s notice. Can I do the same? Tonight: perfect test. Check time: after eleven in the evening. If not already in bed (don’t think about it), close to it. Send a text.
Crime scene in your neighbourhood. Likely dangerous. SH
Will he come? It’s Mary’s night, a Clapton night. Cosy little evening in with his beloved, or a cosy night out with danger and bloodied bodies? (With me?) Will he be able to resist?
His answer comes almost impossibly fast.
I thought I heard sirens. Are you here already?
Smile. Is he bored, sitting there (lying there?) with his lady love on that third-hand sofa (on that old and too-soft bed)? This might be easier than I thought.
In a taxi. Lestrade is suspicious. Could use your help, if available. SH
Pause. He’s deciding, talking to Mary, making up for the fact that he keeps checking his phone. Rude, isn’t it? He’s trying to be subtle, but she’s sure to notice anyway. (She does the exact same thing.) Frowns at him. Feels put out. Stab of insecurity that plagues the chronically unfaithful. (Does she suspect the presence of a problematic tension between John and me? I think not. Surely she can’t imagine it, I don’t look like her usual competition.)
(I am not her competition. There is no competition, there never was any competition. She’s won, she’s won.)
Taxi driver signals; about to take a right turn.
”Straight through.” He looks startled, like he’s forgotten I’m here. “There’s a road closure. Straight through. Faster.” A buzz. Another text from John. Sends of jolt of pleasure through me. (At some point, will those stop? Will a text from John feel just like a text from anyone else? Presumably. Eventually. Hopefully sooner rather than later. Is it odd to feel conflicted about that inevitable loss? Hate it, treasure it. More paradoxes.)
A single word that shoots straight to the pleasure centres of my brain. Text him an address. He’ll be there before me, waiting for me, that look of anticipation on his face, buried in his professional expression (competence, calm, objectivity), a hint of excitement. He’ll be standing there, his flat-footed self, blending into the background, waiting for me.
London slips past. The superfluous sounds of it fade into the background hum. (John can moderate the world around me even from the other side of a text. Amazing what power my senses are willing to grant him over me.)
Seems like Anderson and Donovan have had a spat.
Smile. He’s already there. Took no time at all to decide, put on his coat and his shoes and ran. John is continuing our regular whispered conversations in any medium available to us. My John.
An excellent deduction! Anderson persists in not leave his wife. Sally does not approve. SH
Ah. She really could do so much better.
The taxi pulls up to a poorly-maintained terraced house; I look around with my heart seemingly in my throat.
A surprise; John is not alone. He’s brought Mary along with him. (Why?) She is looking around at the scene with mild curiosity. A tourist. Burst of anger: why is John contaminating crime scenes with his amorous affairs? I’ll never be able to remember this murder fondly, at this rate. Pay the cabbie; step out. Lestrade looks over; relieved.
“Sherlock!” he calls. He waves me over. Sally rolls her eyes at me. I have to force myself to turn and face John; Mary follows a step behind him.
“Good evening, John.” The formality chokes me, but Mary’s presence makes me feel uncertain, uncomfortable. “Mary.” I nod. I know how to be polite. “Are you interested in crime scenes as well?”
“Not particularly, no.” She wrinkles her nose. I find that I really dislike her. She links her arm through John’s, then rests her hand on his hip.
Jealousy is a common motive for any number of crimes, and thus I have long been aware of its potency and power, but to experience it like this, the hot poker of twisting emotion shooting up my body and wrapping around my throat, is truly indescribable. I will have to ponder this experience carefully in the future, and apply what I’ve learned in this searing moment to further deductive work. Jealousy must be an even more common motive than I surmised; I have likely failed to assign it in any number of cases where it belonged. (John: why are you doing this to me?)
The tiny Clapton house that makes up this crime scene is a tumult of smells; four different brands of air freshener (ghastly), fresh paint on the wall in the sitting room (painted less than two hours ago), carpet cleaner, gas, and the apple crumble in the oven. The Met are removing items in evidence bags (all useless). There is a pile of half-burnt leaves in the garden.
“He beat me and left me for dead,” the woman says. “You’ve got to find him, arrest him! How dare he!” Mary sits with her, pets her hair, coos to her gently. Sympathetic. John tends to her injuries; the fresh cut on her cheekbone, bloody nose, a broken finger. Nothing serious. She has two black eyes and a set of four perfect scratches on her upper arm. She displays a bruise across her stomach (proudly). Lestrade: right to be suspicious. That bruise is a perfect match for one of her kitchen chairs (self-inflicted). Black eyes: marks across her cheeks indicate they were created by repeatedly slamming a door on her face (self-inflicted). Her fingernails have been recently cut; the scratches are a perfect match for her right hand (self-inflicted). Examine the kitchen door; evidence of her blood. Open the oven; apple crisp. Oven sparklingly clean. Tin of paint in a cupboard, brush freshly washed. Peer into the basement; gas. Mildew. Won’t be able to smell a thing after leaving here; assault on the senses. Eyes water from the stench. Shut the door.
“That crumble is burning.” Mary, walking across the kitchen, a bloodied towel in her hand. “Aren’t they going to arrest her?”
“For burning a crumble?” I ask. Curious.
“For killing her husband, of course.” She rinses the towel in the sink, twists it to get the water out. “I presume his body is locked in the cellar or something. Did you check?”
A wry look. She’s surprised me. Would have thought this little domestic scene would fool her, her own desperate shame would hide the results of such obvious infidelity. But apparently not. (The woman has removed her wedding ring, thrown it at the wall. There is a condom under the couch, a pair of knickers stuffed in the bin. So obvious what happened.)
Mary raises an eyebrow. She’s waiting for a response from me, which I’m not giving her. Feels like a game of cat and mouse. Again: she takes it as a challenge. “Isn’t it obvious? She painted the walls. Who paints the walls after being beaten to a pulp? Surely she did it to hide the evidence of something. Blood splatter? Gun shots? Something.” Wrong, but not entirely. Not a bad hypothesis. Better than Anderson’s, surely.
So: Mary is not unintelligent. Not at all. Well, of course she isn’t. John admires intelligence. (Know that already.) She has had to use her intelligence in a number of circumstances; hiding her various infidelities (clearly); meriting a series of scholarships (three degrees; undergraduate, two graduate); manipulating her employer in order to maintain the flexible schedule she craves. In other circumstances, perhaps we might have been friends. (Too strong a word.) Colleagues? We might have been able to tolerate each other, then.
She’s in jeans and a t-shirt; not quite enough clothing for a cool, damp evening. She had to get dressed to come out, pulled on the clothes closest to the bed. (Her clothes were on the floor; Mary is not as fastidious with her clothing as I am with mine, nor is she as neat and tidy as John. Someone else he needs to clean up after: I sense a pattern.) John got her out of bed to come to the crime scene. Imagine: Mary, in bed, John curled around her, her brown hair tucked under his chin; had they just had sex? (Probably.) He leans over to check his phone for the text he just received. He was thinking of me. (Was he? Of course he was.) Did they argue? Did she resist? Is she here to stake her claim, remind me that it’s one of her nights, not mine? She’s staring at me, waiting for me to confirm or deny her hypothesis. There’s no ire in her face. (I am most certainly not her competition.) I give her a half-smile, almost genuine.
“Interesting.” That’s all I’ll say for now.
She folds her arms across her chest. “You think otherwise?”
Don’t answer. Walk back out to the drawing room, where John is cradling the woman, patting her head, soothing her. She is crying (pretending to; no actual tears, but with volume).
“So.” I kneel down in front of her, in front of John. His denim-clad knee in front of me. I lay my hand on it, as if for support. He glances at me, unperturbed. Curious. The heat of him rises up through my cool fingers. John. (I miss you.) He’s petting her hair. No tears on her face, which is half-hidden. “Tell me.” I try to say it as pleasantly as possible. “Where did you hide the bodies?”
She freezes, the false crying stops. She’s in shock. She’s been caught. Triumph.
“Bodies...plural?” Lestrade. Of course, plural. The husband and his lover, the ones our murderer interrupted in the middle of the act on the drawing room floor. (A friend of hers? Probably.) Both dead now. Gassed in the cellar and dragged back out of the house. (Where? The garden? A back alley somewhere? A skip?) Infidelity kills. I wonder if the lesson is made plain to Mary. Does she understand this as a warning? Perhaps. Can’t hide one smell with seventeen others. Evidence of the truth is always stronger than all the lies piled on top of it.
Mary fidgets as I list the evidence, point out the obvious conclusion. The woman screams as the Met handcuffs her and drags her into the patrol car. I barely hear it (car doors slam, radios bleep and fizz with static; sounds like lulling music, white noise). John’s flesh is muffling the sounds of the rest of the world until my attention crystallises around him. He is his own magnetic field (draws me in). The three of us: walking to the main road. Slap of rubber soles on the pavement.
“He was cheating on her,” John notes. Mary shifts uncomfortably. Fascinating. John’s face is clear; he feels empathy, but not (personal) concern. She hasn’t told him. Not yet. She means to, but she hasn’t. (What will he do? What will he say?) “With her best friend, no less.”
“Yes.” I manage to restrict myself to a single word. Three marriages already, John. You know about the three marriages. Do you imagine that the fourth will be any different? How could it possibly be?
“Doesn’t really justify murder though, does it.” Mary is the tiniest bit defensive; will John notice? Wraps her arms around herself, as if she’s cold. (She’s not.)
“No,” he says. (He doesn’t.) “But still. Looks like she went a bit mad. She redecorated in a hurry.”
“The paint was to mask the smell of the gas,” I explain. Isn’t that obvious? “And the burning leaves, the air fresheners, and the crumble.”
“Can’t hide anything with a crumble,” Mary says. John and I look at each other, then laugh. After a moment, so does Mary.
I suppose she’s not so bad.
They invite me over for a drink at Mary’s dingy little flat, but I decline. I don’t want to see them in their domesticity; it’s bad enough that I can imagine it so clearly. I will sit in an armchair; they will sit cuddled together on the sofa, wine glasses dangling from their fingers. No. Best not. I watch John walk home with her, his hand on the small of her back. He looks back, once, to see me watching them. Eyes in shadow. I walk through Clapton, lost in my own thoughts, until the rain begins in earnest. A buzz; text. Check: from John. That same physical thrill at the sight of his name.
What for? SH
Letting her come along. I appreciate it. She was pleased. You were kind to her.
Was I? SH
I think you’ll like her when you get to know her. I hope you will.
Pause. Can’t think of how to respond.
You’re both very important to me, you know that.
Start to compose a response, some thing like, of course, John or shouldn’t you be sleeping?, but before I can decide, another text from John.
I miss you.
It jabs me in the chest. Why? He’s just seen me. He’ll see me tomorrow; we’ll probably spend the evening watching a terrible film or some quiz show on the telly. He sees me every few days, every other weekend. But I know what he means. The piece that’s missing. Why does he tell me this now, why isn’t he afraid (he was afraid, on the roof, in his bed with my hand against his hip)? Her hair tickling his back, her steady breathing on the other side of the bed; his heterosexual future unquestioned, it makes him feel safe. He says these things to me, tears my heart in half (again). Press the keys, compose a response that is not what I mean to say, what I should say, if I let myself think about it. But the early morning sounds of Clapton are filling my ears, pounding against my brain; the rush of traffic, some drunk boys pissing against a wall and laughing, a bottle shattering. It hurts.
I miss you too. SH
Chapter 8: The Conductor
Mycroft, my bow in his hand, his fingers loosely grasping the frog. Knuckle perilously close to the hair. Hate that. Bounces it about like a baton to a beat in his head (slow 6/8, like a bloody-minded German), throwing ictuses everywhere. With Mycroft, music starts and finishes with conducting. All that matters to him is what’s in his head; he doesn’t need to pick up his viola and actual play. Lazy bastard. (Does he even still have a viola? Did he lock it away with the rest of the family treasures when Mummy died?) My icy glare is pointless; he’s not looking at me. He’s reading from a notebook he’s holding aloft as though he’s Lord bloody Byron. Trying to get my attention. He always has it. It’s infuriating.
Pluck at the strings of my violin, the dull sound of it hums through my chest. (A little Tchaikovsky, only every other note of the melody. Mycroft doesn’t need to know how I soothe my little hurts.) Want to snatch my bow from his fingers so I can play, loudly, and drown out whatever drivel he’s trying to read, but he wouldn’t let go if I did. He’d much rather let me break it in half. He’ll smirk and just keep reading at me.
“Trust issues.” I’ve heard this before, why is he reading this to me? He hits the the high ictus and swings a long preparation down to the next beat. My bow hisses through the air. Can almost hear the strains of the Wagneresque march he’s conducting and it’s putting me off. “Intimacy issues. There’s a whole section on that here, you’ll want to know more about that, won’t you.”
John does not have intimacy issues. Well, he doesn’t have intimacy issues as a general rule. Intimacy with me, however: a frightening prospect. Others: no. If Mary is anything to go by. He is prepared to share an intimacy with any woman who shows the slightest inclination. And a few who don’t. Heterosexual panic? (Or is it just me, causing panic? It’s probably just me.)
“Not interested in the slightest.” Not looking at him now. Look instead at the smooth body of my violin, my own fingerprints on it, visible only at a certain angle (this one). Fingers shift on the fingerboard in pure muscle memory. Swan Lake. (Vulgar. But comforting.) Pluck the strings gently. Still see the ivory tip of my bow bobbing about out of the corner of my eye. He always manages to keep my attention, no matter how I try to fight it. Intensely frustrating.
“Prone,” Mycroft says, pausing for effect, “to bouts of infidelity. But you already knew that, didn’t you.”
I look up. He’s got a wicked half-smile on his face. He’s enjoying this.
Mary. Didn’t think she had a therapist.
“These notes are several years old.” Flourishes them at me. “Think much has changed?” My bow is still slicing through the air: ictus, ictus, ictus, preparation swing. “Cold distant father, hints of covert incest.” Puts the notebook down on his lap, lets me see the tiny print. Densely packed. Pages of it. Mountains of information on Mary. “You know that covert incest isn’t actual--”
“I know.” I spit it out. I’m impatient. Anxious. What does he want? Why is he telling me all this?
“She’s been married three times. That can’t be news to you. She was engaged a fourth time, but she sabotaged that one quicker than the ones before. It says here,” lifts up the notebook again, “fear of intimacy coupled with low self-esteem and desire for approval from men results in her aggressive sexuality and serial infidelities.” Flips a page. “This therapist recommended regression therapy. Incompetent.”
“Do I need to remind you,” I pluck one of the strings on my violin particularly hard, “That I am not the one marrying her?”
“She showed remorse.” He goes on as if I said nothing. Makes my blood boil. “She doesn’t do it deliberately. It’s compulsive. Her therapist felt sorry for her. Did you know, she ended up sleeping with him? He lost his license. Not her fault, of course. She’s a powerful narcissist, this one.”
“She’s not a narcissist.” Defend her? Of course I will. Mycroft lies.
“You’d know, of course.”
“I’ve met her.”
“You’ve evaluated her as the competition.” He thinks he’s correcting me. The conducting hasn’t stilled; it hasn’t even faltered. Mycroft could have this entire conversation without me.
Ictus, ictus, ictus. “I’ve suspected all along, about you and your flatmate. You know that.”
Sigh noisily. None of his business. None at all. If he wants to have this conversation, he can just insert the parts I should say without me actually saying them. If I think very very hard maybe I can block out the sound of his voice. There’s an experiment in the kitchen (lead, salt, coagulated blood) I could check on; count prime numbers; 83, 89, 97, 101, 103, 107...
“From the moment I first met him I suspected he might have this effect on you. Is that when it started? Just then, the moment you first clapped eyes on him? Or did it come later?”
...109, 113, 127 God no too boring, he’s breaking through. Dammit.
He doesn’t know everything. Wants to, even these irrelevant things. The unquantifiable. Things that don’t belong in the open. Things he can hold over my head later, get me to do what he wants. Won’t give in to him. Never do. Manipulative bastard. Itching to grab the notebook off his lap; notebook, or my bow. One or the other. He can’t have both. Mary’s failings or mine; pick, Mycroft. Pick just one.
“You fancy yourself in love with him, don't you.” Not a question. I hate him. “Ah. Yes. You do. Good, Sherlock. That’s progress. Mummy would have been pleased.”
Roll my eyes. Of course he’d bring her up. Just trying to score a point. Hit a little harder. Yes: she wanted me to do this, to feel this. She worried. Wondered if I could. (Or, more precisely: if I would, if I would deign to let someone else come so close to me. She never doubted that I was capable. Unlike others. Unlike me.) There was nothing I could do, then, to reassure her. She would have liked John.
“Until now, I thought it was mostly unrequited. Foolish, adolescent, and unrequited. But I understand now that is not entirely true.”
He holds up the notebook again. “This was the evidence that finally swayed me, the part where her therapist writes: Mary is primarily attracted to emotionally compromised men. Men who are emotionally unstable, or unable to love her back, or who are in love with someone else.” Drops the notebook into his lap; it falls shut. “He was speaking of himself there, the way his love for his wife made him more attractive to Mary. He might as well have been writing about your John. You have to blame yourself for her interest in him. He fancies you a great deal. A great deal indeed.”
So well orchestrated, as always. My eyes lock with his without my permission. He’s grinning at me. “Did you already know? Ah. Of course. You did. Oh, poor Sherlock. You don’t know what to do with him now, do you.”
Sigh. I hate him for this. Why won’t he leave me alone? “He’s not in love with me.”
“The evidence suggests otherwise.” He drops a file on the table in front of me, but I refuse to even glance at it. Why must he always pry?
“He’s getting married.”
“Marriage doesn’t physically prevent you from loving someone else, Sherlock.” Roll my eyes. “And you sit there, plucking out Swan Lake as if that will make him love you enough to leave her.”
I can feel the blood rushing to my face.
“You can do better than that, Sherlock.”
“No.” I drop the violin back into its case. Hold my hand out for the bow. Wait for it. He finishes out the last two bars and then slides it gently into my hand. Hands are sweaty, shaking slightly. Try to hide it, but he sees everything. Hopeless.
“Yes, you can.”
"It's irrelevant." I can feel my anger spilling over, making me lose all sense of judgment. I am going to say things I do not want to say, do not want to admit, do not want to let Mycroft know, all because he knows exactly how to inspire my most blind and most absolute rage. There’s a moment before dropping down the precipice that I understand with startling clarity how well Mycroft manipulates me, forcing me to revert into the child he will always consider me to be (aged seven with a broken fishbowl in my hands, red-faced and livid and ashamed), but then I dissolve into blood and spit and indignation. “He doesn’t want to.”
A pause. “Ah.”
Don’t look up. Shaking with rage. World tinted red. Some part of me hoped he would see a way through. But he doesn’t. My assessment is painfully correct.
“Perhaps they deserve each other then.”
After he’s left I discover that I’ve snapped my bow in half.
Chapter 9: Almost Unnoticeable
Awkward conversations about personal subjects: really not my area. John, sitting at the kitchen table, cup of coffee in his hand. In a worn t-shirt and pyjama bottoms; slippers on his feet. John didn’t used to do that; used to be so formal, even first thing in the morning. Shower, dress before he came down the stairs. Damp hair combed, shoes on and tied, creases pressed. (More military habits: the hospital corners remain, and I still disrupt them.) John is more casual now, more relaxed. (Minus his cane, his limp, his constant despair.) His t-shirt is so worn that the next wash will begin to tear it along the hem. I can see a bit of his scar through the fabric; reddish skin, angry, slightly mottled.
(The more of him I can see, the more worn his t-shirts as he sits in the kitchen in the mornings, the more often pushes his feet into his slippers: is that a gauge of his happiness? If so: he appears to be very happy.)
Newspaper spread in front of him. (He always reads the international news first, all of it, even the parts that trickle into the back pages. Has a special focus for Afghanistan (of course) and local crime (naturally). Slowly loses concentration after that. Only skims in the following order: British politics, sport, obituaries. Ignores the rest.)
In the middle of today’s paper he will find another of the articles I have collected for him and scattered around the flat. The various theses of these arguments should express my point precisely without any muddled words on my part, without me starting up an epic row. Found this one in the library, copied it, stapled it together. Underlined key points, made notes in the margins. Treger, “The Influences of Sociosexuality and Attachment Style on Reactions to Emotional Versus Sexual Infidelity,” from the Journal of Sex Research (2010).
When he finishes reading the reports of the latest news, he will turn a page and see it. It will be the fourth article he will have found so far this morning, leading him to the inescapable conclusion that Mary’s infidelity is innate, immutable and inevitable, all without me saying a word.
The first (found at the LSE library, ironically) was sitting on top of the toilet (Ezrar, “Relational Family Therapy Perspective on Adult Detachment,” Journal of Family Psychotherapy (2010): relies too much on nonsense theory and qualitative evidence, but the general thesis will get the point across), another, left on the table next to the armchair (Hawkins, “Defining Intimacy in Diverse Asian Cultures,” Graduate Research (2010): slightly off topic perhaps, but contains some ideas on the subject of intimacy in general that are quite relevant), and finally one next to the microwave, chosen to introduce a bit of levity to these dire affairs and convey a sense of my wry wit and sympathy (Fincham, “Faith and Unfaithfulness: Can praying for your partner reduce infidelity?” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2010), obviously trite and not worth the paper it’s printed on, but amusing and underscoring the basic point nonetheless). He will turn the pages, see my notes, and then he will understand.
Sunlight hits the top of his head; his shiny hair. Golden. Bits of it grey. I want to touch it, feel how the blond hair is different from the grey (softer? thinner?), but instead hold my hands still. Palms pressed together. Wait. He will turn the page. He will understand. Tips of my index fingers pressed to my lips. Keeping my mouth shut. He takes a deep breath in; then exhales slowly. Sips from his cup. Watch his eyes zipping back and forth as he reads the tiny columns; down the page, and then up; zig zag, zig zag.
“Am I really that interesting?” he says, not looking up. He turns a page.
I suppose I’m staring at him. Perhaps not a good idea. Oh well. “Of course.”
“Really.” He looks up at me, stares back for a moment. Smiles. There’s a warmth in his eyes; he doesn’t actually mind. He might even like it. Looks back at me, his flecked eyes; a strange intimacy in the looking. The obstacle of the table, the weight of the wrong words between us, the wrong decisions. Easily pushed aside. Rub fingers against my lips, imagine touching his. “What are you deducing about me today?”
“Your left eye is slightly weaker than the right.” I say it automatically. It’s true, but I deduced it months ago, not just now. Why am I lying? Comes out naturally. Both want and don’t want to start this conversation. The one about Mary, and what he’s about to do. What he needs to know. Bizarre internal conflict about starting an external conflict. (Conscience? Fear? Desire to keep the peace? No idea.) Wait.
“Is it?” He finds it amusing.
“Yes.” Lace fingers together. He’s still looking at me, hint of a smile on his face. “Also: your hair is different colours. Blond, brown, some grey. I want to know what they feel like.” That part is true. Is it inappropriate to say?
He smiles again. The human face is extremely plastic, an evolutionary trait in support of a social creature in need of relationships. John’s face is uniquely expressive (and he is uniquely in need of relationships: are these facts connected?) His affection for me: obvious. (The bitter feeling in my stomach outweighed by something else, a light sort of joy, a pleasant feeling in my gut when he smiles at me like that. Soothing; also arousing. Interesting.) He leans forward a bit. “Go on then. Far be it from me to get in the way of science.”
A table is no obstacle at all. I push my fingers through his hair; the warm bit at the top where the sun has been resting; blond, brown, grey. Hard to distinguish them, but each colour has a slightly different texture. Blond the thinnest and softest (of course), grey the thickest, coarsest. When he grows older he will have a head of thick grey hair; testosterone level in his body is high enough to give him a healthy sex drive (obviously), but not high enough to show signs of balding. Let one hand trail over to the back of his neck; thumb rests behind his ear. Warm. Can feel his pulse, heat rising on his skin. Feel his breath speed up slightly. Markers of arousal. Spike of pleasure. Have to shut my eyes against it. John smells of sleep and soap. I can’t smell the rancid fat from the chicken shops near Mary’s flat, or the sickly smell of cheap cleaning products from the hallway outside her door. This morning he only smells of Baker St. and himself.
It’s been a few moments too long that I’ve been holding on, fingers on his neck, in his hair. I know it. I can tell he does too, but he doesn’t appear to object. I lean closer and rub my cheek against his hair. Quickly press my lips to his forehead through his fringe. A mirror of the kiss he gave me. Then I let him go. There’s an odd trembling in my stomach. Steeple my fingers again, breathe.
John leans back, takes a sip from his cup. He studies me, his expression calm, relaxed. “Well?”
“I’ll write up a report, if you like.”
He laughs. He doesn’t turn the next page in the paper, and doesn’t see the last article I printed for him. I can only imagine that’s why he doesn’t get my point about Mary this morning.
So I try again in the afternoon.
Two strategically placed psychology textbooks on the coffee table (given my distaste for this so-called science, I had to go out of my way to procure these: found both in a second hand bookshop near Imperial; one on co-dependency, opened to a extremely relevant section and highlighted by its previous owner (too copiously, students lack rigour when given a bright yellow marker), and another dissecting the odd but not uncommon conflation of intimacy issues and infidelity. Stack them against each other, so that the corner of one book is pointing quite deliberately to an especially cutting paragraph in the other. Precise.
In about twenty-five minutes, a documentary about socially destructive sexual behaviour in Bonobos is going to come on the telly. John unlikely to watch the whole thing, but since the thrust of its argument is present in the introduction, it will set the proper tone. John sitting on the sofa with me, eating an apple, watching some chat show. I have a report on my lap, which I am perusing. (Clearly: can watch a documentary and verify some lab results at the same time.) He gets up to dispose of the core, and when he sits back down, he is partially sitting on my toes. I wiggle them.
He goes back to watching his show, but wraps his right hand around my ankle, absently, and strokes his thumb back and forth from the top of my instep up, across the soft point between my talus and calcaneus bones. Catches me; didn’t expect that. A strangely intimate touch. (Breathe. Breathe.) Feel my phone buzz: a text. Don’t care.
In the Chinese tradition, stroking this spot is thought to stimulate the groin. While I know very well that the body’s organs are not mapped out in the feet, linking this particular spot to the groin might have been done for real physiological reasons; must research this phenomenon later. Concentration is shot. Vision goes a bit blurry. Retain enough awareness to avoid drooling. Pretend to be absorbed in the report all the same. Blissful. When he stops, I notice he’s switched the channel without my noticing. John may or may not have seen the documentary at all.
Check incoming texts: just one, from Mycroft. Ignore it (for now, at least). Hardly need him spoiling the afternoon (again). Lingering warm buzzing in my lower stomach. Glorious. Don’t think John got the point of the textbooks or the documentary. Too subtle?
Over dinner, about to ask: searching for a way to phrase it, the way people do when they have a question they don’t quite know how to articulate without causing a riot. The way they ask questions that aren’t the things they want to ask, just to introduce a topic. Want to ask, “has she told you?”, when the real question is, “are you aware that your marriage will end the same way Mary’s previous marriages did, because there’s no way for it to go otherwise? Are you sure you want to do this?” Can’t see a way to phrase it that doesn’t put him on the defensive. Enjoying his relaxed posture, the smoothness of him. Don’t want the frequent touches to stop, the warm grins. He’s happy. Consider dozens of alternatives: “She’s been married before, correct?” playing dumb doesn’t suit me; only requires a yes or no response), “Mary has a colourful past, doesn’t she,” (bordering on offensive, terrible turn of phrase, trite, tedious) or, “is she still in touch with her ex-husbands?” (Cheeky.) None of them seem quite right. Not talking about it is easier and more pleasant. It remains on the tip of my tongue, hovering there, getting in the way of dinner, but it never emerges.
Stalling, check Mycroft’s text message. Prophetic, of course: If you tell him, and she is unfaithful, he will blame you. Annoyed. Dislike the degree to which he can follow my train of thought, even from a distance. Off-putting. But it works. I stop considering it. Can’t argue that he doesn’t have a valid point. Feels like I’m failing John somehow. Not prepared to sacrifice myself (my relationship with him, my future relationship with him, in whatever form that might take) in order to prevent his pain. None of my business. His decision.
Mycroft requires a very specific response: Piss off. SH
The night before the wedding, I fall asleep leaning against the frame of John’s partially open bedroom door. Must have: remember standing at the door, watching him sleep, waiting for a nightmare, waiting for the top right corner of his bed to come undone. Then suddenly, John standing over me, hand on my shoulder. I’ve fallen. Must have tipped over. He hauls me to my feet wordlessly, pushes me toward his bed. Tucks me in. Gets in on the left side (why always the left side of the bed? What advantage?) and curls up against me. His forehead on the back of my neck, hand on my hip, which flexes, as if he’s trying to communicate (hand, hip: a primitive kind of language). Don’t think I will, but I fall asleep.
Harry and I both sign as witnesses, while Mary’s two giggly friends look on and snap photos. John looks sharp and serious in his dark suit; Mary looks happy in a green dress (she has the decency not to wear white, which is atrocious anyway). Harry looks marginally perturbed; either she doesn’t approve any more than I do (and if so: perhaps I have met a new friend), or she’s concerned about how long it will be until her next drink. (She looks like John; same sharp eyes, plastic, endlessly readable face.)
Something only I (and probably Mycroft, damn him) would see: John walks out toward the car, off to begin his marital bliss with a weekend at a bed and breakfast (Whitstable in Kent), with a very slight limp. Almost unnoticeable. But not quite.
Chapter 10: Too Long
Murder weapon: a knife. (Just an old kitchen knife, made only slightly more interesting by two careful letters on the bottom of the handle, in ink, covered over by a coat of clear nail varnish. Someone cared for this knife, shared a kitchen, didn’t want to lose her things (a woman, obviously). A kitchen knife, for making dinners and salads, not for stabbing fourteen year old boys in dark alleys. This knife belongs to a woman who shared a kitchen; lived in a group home. A shelter. A battered woman’s shelter. Brought her own things with her. But that was years ago now. In her own place now, polish is coming off and not been replaced. And her son; he’s sixteen. A history of violence. Someone’s picked up this knife in anger before. Fingernails dug into the wooden handle. Male. Her son’s? Her husband’s?)
CCTV footage rolling on the screen; two boys wandering into an alley; one, fourteen (the victim, lying in hospital now, stab wounds, critical condition) the other, sixteen (convoluted story about a tall man in a waistcoat who shouted threats; too convoluted, too detailed. Who remembers a waistcoat, other than me?). No one else on the street at all. One boy runs out (the elder). The attempt. Clearly. Caught just off screen. A silent street, the testimony. Stop the footage and pick up phone, text Lestrade.
Arrest 16 year old. Still have chat logs to sift through for motive. SH
The sound of throat-clearing. John. (Obvious. I can hear the edge of his voice, even in the clearing of his throat. Impossible to mistake.)
Spin around and see him standing by the door. Half-hidden behind the coat rack. Looking small. Bit ashamed. Hiding, but not consciously. Why? John. (How long have you been there?) Turn to face him. Smile. Haven’t seen him in three weeks. Off mooning around with Mary. Missed him. Can feel just how much I’ve missed him now that I see him. (A shocking amount.) Something looks wrong.
He’s had a haircut. (That’s not it.) It suits him.
“You’re late.” Hold out the weapon, still in the evidence bag.
“Took me a while to get here,” John says, sheepish, and moves toward me. Limping. Limping badly, using a cane. (New one now: wooden. Gift. Oh. Gift from Mary. She had to purchase it recently because John’s limp returned while they were away from London. She picked it out for him, thinks he likes it. He hates it. Makes him feel like an old man with an old man’s cane. His grandfather had a cane like that. The ugly metal one was better, more medical, less geriatric. More hopeful that the limp is temporary. This one suggests that he’ll just have to live with the limp, pretty it up a bit with a gnarled and bourgeois-polished stick of wood. No. It won’t do at all.)
Of course it took him a while to get here. On the fifth floor of the old police building. No lift. Oh, John.
That’s what it is, that’s what’s wrong. Knows it’s all in his head. Expecting me to tease him? Mock him? Look down on him for letting it creep back? (Would I do that? Maybe once. Not now.)
Frown. Can’t help it. Concerned. Why does the limp come back? Thought I’d cured that. Shocked it out of his system. His mind is tenacious and stubborn. Wants to punish John, somehow. Make him suffer. “I see.”
He limps heavily across the room toward me. Limp as bad as it ever was, possibly worse. Three weeks away from a case (away from danger, running in terror, having to pull out his illegal handgun) is too long.
(But consider: five weeks minus a case, living with me, didn’t bring his limp back. Six weeks, even. His normal workaday life, dinners out, watching telly, folding hospital corners, having nightmares: six weeks, no limp. Now: three weeks away. Terrible limp. So: the cure not just danger. But the potentiality of danger. Waking up every morning not knowing if today is the day we get shot at again, have to leap from a high place, hide from murderers or break into houses for evidence. Not just danger. Me. Three weeks away from me brings back his limp.)
(John’s well-being is entirely dependent on being with me. Satisfying. Bittersweet. But pleasing. Does he know?)
“The boy did it.”
“You’ve worked it out already?” John sounds disappointed. I preen a little. Yes, I did work it out already.
“CCTV.” Wave a hand. Don’t want to be too cocky when John is clearly feeling so low. “We know who did it, but no idea why. Still have chat logs to go through.” Motion to a laptop sitting on the table. He leans his (awful) cane against chair and sits. Peers at the screen. Absently rubs at his leg as he scans through the files. Haven’t seen his leg cause him this much pain since the first moment I met him. Can’t have that.
Solution: easy. (Send a few texts; arrange a meeting. Simple, really.)
Spend half the night being chased by a man I presumed was a potential killer (not an experienced one). Shots are fired; hit the wall rather than either of us. Arrest made (after John tackled the man to the ground and knocked him senseless, of course). John is panting, his leg is fine (it’s fine, it’s all in his head, it just needs a reminder). He pats me down roughly, suddenly afraid I’ve been hit without him noticing. Grabs my jaw and forces me to turn my head. Touches his fingers to my neck, my earlobe. Feel a slight burn. He pulls his fingers back and shows me. Blood. I was grazed. Didn’t even feel it. Now: it stings slightly.
“Ouch,” I say, and touch my neck. Blood dripping from my earlobe.
“That was dumb,” he said. “If you were an inch shorter and you’d have a bullet in your brain. What were you thinking?”
I was thinking about you. You, John. Obviously. His limp is gone. Twenty-one days apart is too long. One burst of danger (a reminder of what his life is meant to be like, living with me, being with me) is enough.
For how long?
Head is burning. throat is raw and dry. Feel so cold I think the wind is passing through me; then so hot I need to push all the bedclothes off me. Desire to cough bested only by fear of coughing up all of my innards in one go. Sweating. Aching. Damp cloth John has placed on my forehead strangely soothing. (Because he put it there? Possibly.)
“You obviously haven’t been feeling well for some time. You should have called me.” John is moving the telly from the sitting room into my bedroom. I have no idea why.
“I prefer to text.” My voice sounds strange, strangled. Not like my voice at all. Alien sounds coming out of me.
“You should have texted me, then. Now you’ve got pneumonia.”
“I’ll be fine.” Admittedly, I don’t sound fine. I sound dreadful. Pasty taste of antibiotics still lingering in the back of my throat. Cough. (Ouch.)
He places the telly on top of the dresser, plugs in it. Switches it on. It’s too loud and he scrambles for the remote (shoved into his pocket). Mashes a button until the volume ebbs. He adjusts it so that I can’t help but see it; the flickering light is annoying at best. Want to ask why he moved the bloody telly, but talking might make me cough again. Unpleasant.
He flits around like a nervous rabbit. (Note: no limp. It’s been four days since I last saw him. No hint of a limp at all. Four days apart is all right, as far as John’s leg is concerned. My lungs beg to differ.) Picks up a glass and goes to the kitchen; fills it with water. Forces me to drink it. (Makes me cough.) Fills it with water again and leaves it on my bedside table. Returns to the kitchen; comes back with three oranges in one hand. He climbs into the bed next to me, picks up the remote, switches from channel to channel until he finds something he likes. Settles in, his shoulder against mine. (Perhaps moving the telly was a good idea after all.) He peels an orange and pops a wedge into his mouth, then points one in my direction.
“Eat.” I struggle to sit up a little more, complaining, coughing. He puts it in my mouth, reluctant as I am. Burst of sweetness. His finger brushes my lip, rests for a moment on my chin. He detaches another segment and hovers it near my mouth until I stick out my tongue to accept it. “Good.”
Four days is all right.
Body in the weeds, bloated and stinking. Donovan and Lestrade keep their distance. I don’t mind. The decomposing human body is just like a living one; a slightly altered set of chemicals inside a highly elastic container. Still human, still full of details. Marks on the neck (fingers), marks on the wrist (fingers), marks on the thighs (fingers), marks on the ankles (fingers). How many hands involved? Five different sets. Gang related. This man was strong, and he fought back. Took a couple of teeth with him.
See movement in the corner of my eye. It’s been a little under two weeks since I last saw him. (Visiting friends of Mary’s in Berwick-upon-Tweed; a golfing holiday, of all things.) John. Limping again. Look up.
“All right, John?” He’s coming down a steep slope; no one’s helping him. Using the cane again (the wooden one; poor John. It’s ghastly, and slightly too short for him).
“Fine,” he grumbles. “Fine.”
“How was golf?”
“More boring than you can possibly imagine.”
“Given how well you understand the depths to which my imagination can descend, that’s a truly frightening proposition.”
Fortunately, there is always something dangerous to do in London. Eleven days: too long for John and I to be apart.
“Send a text for me.” He looks up, startled for a moment. He hasn’t made it down to the slope yet. Stops, pulls his phone out of his pocket. Looks up at me.
Recite the number for John. It will be a long night.
The body was found by the landlady. (Consider: what would Mrs. Hudson do if she found my torso detached from my limbs and stuffed into a cricket bag in the attic? Scream, run away, cry and call the police, or scream, run away, call the police, and then cry? She is a practical woman, at heart.) I can hear John on the stairs. I already know what the evidence of the sound suggests: it’s been nine days. Nine days is too long. His limp has reappeared. It’s not too bad yet, not so much that he hesitates to take the stairs and grimaces in pain when he sits, but noticeable. The tap of his cane on the stairs.
I don’t turn to look at him as he walks in. I’m leaning over the cricket bag, looking for evidence before I turn it over. (Littered around the edges of the room: a rake, an axe, a handsaw, a machete, a chainsaw. None of which are the murder weapon. Marks on the throat, just below the point where the head was removed. Strangled. Something soft: a scarf? Pillowcase? Not rope. Cloth.)
“John.” He’s at the door now, he stops. I don’t need to see him to know that he’s fiddling with that pretentious wooden monstrosity. “Give me your cane.”
He limps toward me. I extend my hand back, don’t look behind me. Don’t need to see; I know how he looks, just now, a bit ashamed of the limp, confused by it, frustrated. Hoping against hope that I don’t mention it. (I don’t. I never do.) Hiding a little behind his over-long fringe (as if he can). He slips it into my palm. “Thank you.” Moment of indecision; axe? handsaw? The simplest is clearly the chainsaw. Walk over, pick it up, John’s dreadful cane in my left hand.
Tuck the cane under my arm and pull the cord on the chainsaw. It starts up on the first try. Hold it in my right hand, drop the cane into my left. One single slice, right in the middle. The bottom half of the cane hits the floor. (Tacky golden tip, all chipped and ugly. Looks like someone’s chewed on it. Been getting far too much use.) I shut down the chainsaw.
Look over at John. He looks stunned. Confused.
“That’s terrible,” I say. “Tragic accident, your dear cane. What a shame.”
He starts to laugh.
I walk over to the door and pick up the plain black metal cane I brought with me, Hand it to John, handle first. “That will have to do instead.” It’s the perfect size for him; I ordered it to fit. (It helps, of course, that I know the exact length of his legs and arms, the choreography of his gait; I was able to specify the precise right size to suit. He will discover at some point later on that I had his initials engraved on it, just under the handle. Small letters: JHW, placed so he can run his fingers over them when he’s bored. He won’t notice now. He’ll notice later on, when he’s at home, and runs his fingers over the brushed metal.) Not quite as workaday as his original one (given to him by the hospital, no doubt, scuffed from previous use), but solid, unpretentious, and (above all) obviously temporary. “It couldn’t be helped.”
“Thank you.” He smiles at me. Surprise written on his face. Gratitude. Affection.
I nod, and go back to the cricket bag.
John’s set to meet me at Angelo’s for dinner. Mary is working tonight (is she, really? I wonder), so we have the evening to ourselves. No plans; we’ll see what turns up. I sit by the window and watch him approach. His steady gait is very slightly canted to the left; he’s favouring the leg again. Doesn’t know it, but he is. His body is fighting him, his brain is insisting on reacting to an injury that isn’t there. Not a full limp yet, but getting there. Six days since I last saw him.
Six days. Too long.
“You need to see me about twice a week.”
I tell John this while he’s sitting in his armchair across from me. He’s reading a medical journal. (His subscriptions still come to Baker St., even though he is no longer paying half the rent.) It’s a Thursday evening and Mary is meeting with her book club. He has a cup of tea in one hand. He needs another haircut. He looks up, through his fringe.
“I’ve been tracking the progress of your limp.”
He blanches a little. I have not mentioned it at all until now, in spite its prominent appearance and disappearance over the last few months. He prefers to pretend it’s not happening, but this will be our singular conversation on the matter. I will get through it quickly and change the subject. “You require exposure to danger, or exposure to the potential for danger. I provide that. Somewhere between four and six days away from exposure to potential danger brings on the limp. If you see me at least twice a week, the limp will not return.”
Pause. He looks startled. I look down at the newspaper on my lap. Glance over the news. Looking for crimes involving ball bearings. (Important.)
“Of course, if you go on holiday or are otherwise barred from seeing me, I suppose you could put yourself in some danger once a week. That might work, it’s unclear. Easier to just see me though, I suspect.”
“I...” John doesn’t appear to know what to say.
“Mary has at least one night shift a week, and meets with her friends at least one evening after work. If you spend those evenings with me, you shouldn’t need to use a cane at all.” Don’t look up. I can hear him relax in his chair. He exhales in a laugh.
“I...see.” he say. I look up. He’s grinning at me. Impressed. Flattered. Still slightly embarrassed. I solved another problem for him. (Didn’t he realize?) “Amazing. You’ve got it tracked to the hour, don’t you.” He shakes his head. “That’s...amazing.”
“Well.” Look back at the paper. John’s compliments never cease to make capillaries bloom with heat under my skin.
“How long have you been working that out?”
Consider. “About four months.”
He stands, walks over to me. Sits down next to me. Puts the palm of his hand on my cheek, strokes me with his thumb. I turn my head and look at him, still holding the newspaper. He is beaming at me. He leans over and kisses me on the lips (lightly). “That’s a good plan. Thank you.”
I don’t know what to say to that. So I don’t say anything.
He stays sitting next to me, reading his journals. I can feel the echo of his lips on mine for the rest of the night.
Chapter 11: Call It What It Is
Small (cheap) dining chair; loose spindles in the back pinch and prod. Fidget. Shift weight from side to side, shake left leg in staccato. Chair legs (ends raw, uncovered by bits of felt) scrape beneath, drawing vertical lines (raw wood directed by never-ceasing motion) on the dining room floor. Leaving evidence of this awkward dinner party. Take the furniture out and you could still read this scene as clearly; the loving couple (John at the head of the table, Mary to his right) leaning toward each other, beaming, happy, radiant, and their anxious guest (uncomfortable, ready to leap up at a moment's notice, full of unresolved tension) on the right. You could read the story in the floor: two people with no regrets; one made of them.
"I opened it, and there was a condom in there. With a paperclip inside it. A paperclip!" Mary, telling droll library stories. Mary has good comic timing, a dramatic flare. Typical skills of a pathological liar. (To be fair: also typical skills of those generally considered socially successful and charming.) "He came back the next day, asking for his bookmark."
John laughs. Touches her arm.
(His hair is slightly mussed; hers, recently re-styled (fresh hairspray, cheap). Freshly-applied lipstick (very cheap), with a smudge inching too high on her upper lip. A bit of that same lipstick rubbed into John's jaw. Their bed (behind a closed door, as if they are trying to hide the presence of the marital bed from me, as if it were somewhat unseemly for me to see it) was swiftly and recently re-made. Smells of sweat, lubricant (cheap), and semen. They had sex before I arrived. Can almost see the oxytocin drifting through John's veins. The heaviness around his eyes, the quiet weight of satisfaction. Trust. Affection. (Love. Call it what it is.)
His face doesn't clench up with frustration (anger, hurt?) when he's with her (like it does so often when he's with me). She smooths out his face (his shoulders, the long muscles in his back, the small ones in his hands, the complications of his post-war life). She speaks; he laughs. Full, unrestrained, confident, unafraid.
(The lack of fear: his body doesn't like it. His body feels tension where his mind believes there is none, invents injury in the face of its deliberate and steady absence. The war broke John. The thing he wants (happiness, stability, comfort, love), this thing that he has is what cripples him.)
My valued contribution to this blissful arrangement: jeopardy and fear. Uncertainty. Danger. (Bitterness. Regret.)
(Valid evaluation. Accurate. I seek out danger as a matter of course. Problems and crimes, evidence and careful thinking, observation and deduction: they keep me sane. Am I largely incapable of providing the kind of comfortable, unwound, unsullied pleasure I can read on John’s face as he drapes his (right) arm around Mary? The body weighed down with complete trust and oxytocin? Is this what John thought I would hate? The dullness of shared bedclothes and mussed hair, a familiar body under my fingers, reacting in predicable ways? (My own unpainted lips against his jaw?) Would I hate it? Was he wrong? I don't know. I think he was. I think I was. Regret. Rewind: start over.)
“More potatoes?” Mary has the spoon in her hand (enamel on the handle is chipped; she will cut herself on it if she shifts her hand a little to the left). She smiles at me. Perfectly pleasant.
A surprise: Mary hides her tells. She is nearly impossible for me to read (on this point, at least, this one point). Her whole body is neutral: her behaviour seems natural, but it’s the opposite. The lesson: it is possible for Mary to have sex (with John, with anyone) without me being able to conclusively deduce that she has done so. Her eyes are clear and friendly, her gaze direct. She looks like someone enjoying the moment, full of confidence, all else shuttered behind her eyes, her mouth, the deliberate expression on her face. I can look at John and know what happened within minutes of my arrival here, but her eyes (face, body) tell me absolutely nothing. Disturbing.
Mary has developed a masterful skill in hiding her tells, or she was blessed enough to never have any in the first place. (Sociopath? No. I don’t think so.) Were she marginally less careful, or less distrustful, or more more secure, less powerfully focused on controlling herself and her situation, I would see the evidence of her recent sexual activity in her face, her body. She is more dangerous than I realised. When she gets caught (three failed marriages and an engagement called off: she obviously gets caught) she does it on purpose. (To punish herself? Possibly. Guilt. Shame. Desire to be different, better? Desire to start over? Do her own mistakes stain the ones she deceives? Does her ability to deceive them make them less attractive to her, less interesting? Do they remind her of their failures with their complete ignorance?)
John and Mary are in very different places, sitting here in her Clapton flat, inclined together toward each other like saggy ragdolls, laughing at rehearsed stories. She is controlled and affecting nonchalance; he is loose and vulnerable, comfortable. Unwound. Open. He is by nature honest with those he loves; she is by nature dishonest. Mismatch. She’s holding a gun to his head. He’s leaning into it. Disaster.
He is in at least as much danger of pain and suffering with her than he ever is with me, but he obviously doesn’t know it. Being with Mary should frighten his limp away too. He doesn’t even need me.
“Oh you’ve cut your--”
“I’ll get my--”
She moved her hand to the left. Gash on her palm. It bleeds profusely. A drop of blood on the potatoes.
“No swimming tomorrow, then.” John bandages her hand.
“I suppose not,” Mary says. “But tomorrow night I’m with my,” the slightest pause, “book club, remember?” Pitch of her voice, very slightly different. Her hand (the left, the one John is not bandaging) absently moves to her face. She glances over at me, then back at John. “The Sentimentalists.” Another pitch again. Rehearsed, deliberate. Deliberately normal. Calm. She makes eye contact. She stills her hand. She smiles. “Really looking forward to it, it’s a wonderful book. Canadian. Prize winner. Have you read it?”
She’s lying. Did the pain of the cut throw her off for a moment? The surprise? The blood? She’s lying about the book club. Is it the first time? The first rendezvous post marriage? Can’t be. John has no idea. He’s letting her change the subject, he’s never heard of The Sentimentalists, or of the Giller Prize. She tells him about both. She’s done her research. She’s read the book. (She’s a librarian.) Airtight. The book club exists (of course), but I would bet my life (her life, his life?) it’s not meeting tomorrow night, that’s the lie. (Might meet tomorrow afternoon, keeping her lie very slight, as close to truth as possible, but gives her a few hours of alibi for something she doesn’t want John to know about. Wants to get away with. The thrill of it.) Skilful. Practised. No guilt around her at all, not now. Now it’s all the ploy, the game, the high; the sex tonight, moments before I arrived, it was part of the lead up. She’s addicted to danger too. She’s addicted to getting away with it. Skirting the line so close she’s about to get caught. But she doesn’t. Not until she wants to.
“You two should do something, though.” Mary’s eyes are all smiles. “Solve a crime or watch telly, right? You’ll take him out for dinner first, won’t you, Sherlock?”
“Of course.” I smile right back. I can play that game too. All warm and genuine. Is she trying to get me off her trail, keep me occupied why she occupies herself? If I’m entertaining John (dinner, telly, maybe a crime scene), that would keep my attention off of her nightly wandering. (Is she that calculating? Does she know I suspect? That I would trail her, watch her from windows, observe and deduce?)
“Such a gentleman!” She laughs. “You two, out on a date while I sit with the girls at the book club. I should be jealous!”
Deflecting. Classic. Suggesting that John would be unfaithful when a tryst with a lover is likely her plan. Obvious. She laughs at her own joke. Finds herself so amusing.
John shoots her a wounded look. A burst of anger in his face, rapidly tamped down. She’s crossed some kind of line. (What sort?) John’s whole face is tensed, his hand clench, then unclench again, deliberately grasping for control. He is very angry; I have never seen him so angry. He smiles tightly at me (an apology: why?) and takes a sip of wine (cheap: terrible). He’s been betrayed, one of the thousand tiny betrayals between lovers. Slip of the tongue. Touched a sore spot. Embarrassed in front of me. (Why? Is John keeping secrets from me?)
Why would that statement bother John so much? A slight against his heterosexuality, his masculinity? Probably not. He says things like it’s all fine. His sister is a lesbian. He’s kissed me (on the lips), he’s curled up next to me in his bed. Admitted to having desire (unusual as it is) for a man (for me). Can’t see him being offended by a joke (obviously a joke) about him getting off with me.
It’s not a joke, no matter how prettily Mary laughs.
In the dark, maybe, in bed, on a cold night some time last winter with Mary in his arms, the dark of night making all confessions seem less dire, he admitted his wayward but (deliberately) unfulfilled desires (for me). Of course! No secrets between spouses; John is romantic enough to believe that. Total honesty. He has been totally honest. She knows there was something (undefinable, unthreatening, surely, she doesn’t appear to feel honestly threatened) between John and me.
(Does she know about the kiss? Does the kiss even matter, a light thank you between friends, chaste and sweet press of lips against lips? I didn’t even reciprocate. Wasn’t time. Was caught off-guard. Is that why it didn’t matter? Do they imagine I wasn’t a willing recipient? Is that why the idea of her being jealous is so funny to her?) He wanted to (have sex with me). (And still does?) And he didn’t. (Not because he couldn’t. Because he wouldn’t. Because we agreed it would break us. Hurt him.. Doesn’t she know that? Of course she does. Doesn’t he remember that? Did he interpret it differently?) Have I been projecting rejection and unwillingness all this time?
She’s laughing: is it because I am so incapable? Because John won’t, because I won’t, because I am some kind of monster, toying with John’s affections for fun? (Or the opposite? John as a monster, toying with me? Impossible. Inconceivable. Not funny, at any rate.) Or does she believe (do they both believe?) I am some sort of asexual creature who doesn’t understand what the closeness (the kiss(es), the hand on my hip, forehead against my back, fingers in my hair) mean and therefore can’t be seen as actual threat to their marriage? Can’t be seen as a legitimate partner, companion, lover?
Is this joke on me? Or on John? The incapable virgin terrified of having/not having John (impossible: they do not know any of these things, how would they? How could they know?), or the broken ex-soldier with a(n unrequited?) crush on his asexual, unemotional, unattainable flatmate and best friend? Or on the both of us, locked in this ridiculous stalemate? Stumbling over assumptions and confusions. I have been so stupid.
John’s anger at Mary is fleeting, but the discomfort remains. He is struggling to forgive her already, sitting there in a terrible dining chair, the spindles squeaking against his back. She has had a bit too much wine; he loves her; he chalks it up to her low self-esteem, her fear. The truth. He has feelings for me he will not stow away. Acknowledged them. He will not isolate himself from me, in spite of his feelings for me. She is justified in her nervousness. He accepts it. Forgives her. He forces himself to smile, to chuckle lightly. False laugh even she should notice. She doesn’t.
I remember what Mycroft read aloud to me: Mary is primarily attracted to emotionally compromised men. Men who are emotionally unstable, or unable to love her back, or who are in love with someone else. Mary is self-aware enough to know this; John is honest enough to admit to the bifurcation of his emotions. They have reached a compromise.
She is mocking him. Mocking him for being in love with an asexual sociopath. His anger (hidden behind false laughter) is palpable.
It’s still just moments after she said it (though it feels so much longer: my world has shifted forever, I need the space and time to readjust). She’s still laughing. Eyes shut. John’s blaze of anger unseen by her, softened to awkwardness in the space of a few seconds.
I suggest: “Maybe you should.” Be jealous, I mean. Everything she thinks she knows about me is wrong.
She laughs again, even louder, as if I’ve just said the most ridiculous thing. It appears that I am playing along. John tries to keep smiling, pushes out some fake laughter, but his eyes: mortified; confused; hurt. A question there, dismissed. There is more under the surface here. More than I can dissect tonight. How can I explain, sitting in this terrible chair, leaning over an over-cooked roast and under-cooked potatoes, watery gravy?
I don’t leave immediately; they would both think I was leaving in an offended huff. Everyone would be angry. John would fret. I wait another hour and forty-five minutes, through dull conversations about local crime and bad telly. Innocuous. Tedious. Simple. The atmosphere absorbs this tentative revelation, the inherent tension in the room. It dissipates as if it never happened. The power of the assumptions and lies flees and John relaxes again. Laughs. Tells stories about cases, much of which Mary barely believes. She looks at me as if waiting for me to counter and correct John, but I don’t.
I can’t keep my eyes off of John; have to deliberately keep myself from staring. I am terrified and fascinated. Watching him for more evidence, some subtle motion, a definitive look on his expressive face, some additional clue. Ambiguous. He pours more wine. We finish the meal; John goes into the kitchen and brings out a plate of Bakewell tarts. (I recognise them: they come from a bakery for which I have a high regard.) John smiles at me. I smile back. (Evidence? Hardly.)
Mary’s eyes are sagging with sleep and with wine by the time I stand and put on my coat. She is looking at John with naked affection. (Love. Call it what it is.) For all her faults, a lack of feeling isn’t one of them. She has not appeared to notice that she insulted and embarrassed John earlier in the evening, and provided a vital bit of evidence for me. (My conclusions must, absolutely must, remain tentative: it is a capital mistake to theorize before you have all the evidence. And my bias in this case is obvious.)
In the doorway, as I am about to step down the stairs away from this wretched little flat, John hugs me. Friendly. A goodbye hug. A clatter of dishes and utensils in the sink from the kitchen: Mary cannot see. A hug. An apology.
“Thanks.” John’s voice: I can feel it through his skin, the vibration of it against me. “Glad you came.” He is. Whatever else is going on between us, we are friends. Important to one another. Glad of one another’s existence. Complicated.
He pulls back from me a little, his hand still on my back. Hesitating. I smile. Make a decision in a flash: don’t let myself think it through. I lean forward and kiss him. Let my tongue run along the edge of his upper lip. (Wine. Roast. Gravy. Almonds. The milkiness that is him.) He’s a little started by it, but slightly drunk; his reaction times are slower, his defences are down. Unrestrained. He’s unwound and trusting. (Even with me; maybe especially with me. Why not with me?) Lightly sucks my bottom lip. Grips my back. Hand slides up to my neck. His tongue. In my mouth. Odd texture against my own. Passion. My veins are all on fire. Lips. Wet. A clatter of utensils in the kitchen; water runs. (A reminder.) We let go. His hand slides off my neck. We stare at each other. Panting slightly (him; also, I notice a moment later, me).
“It was nice.” I mean dinner. Is that clear? Not prepared to evaluate the kiss just now, not like that. Nice probably not the word I would choose. Feel so awkward. Exposed. “Thanks for the invitation.” Still mean dinner. Hope that’s understood. (Was there an invitation to kiss him? Possibly. It was reciprocated. Our first (last? Surely not) fully reciprocated kiss.) My voice is slightly more hoarse than I anticipated. He looks struck a bit dumb. Surprised. (How can he possibly be surprised? If, if...need more time to consider. To piece it together.) He is aroused. Also true of me. Heart is pounding in my ears. I am surely flushed. Blushing. Must be so obvious. (Chalk it up to the wine.) “I’ll see you tomorrow.” I can’t stay here. I don’t know what to do.
I turn, start down the stairs.
“Tomorrow.” John says. Confirming. An edge to his voice too. I don’t hear him shut the door. He’s watching me. Tempted to turn back, share a significant look, acknowledge that I understand a bit more about him, that I misunderstood before (I think), that he misunderstood me (surely), and say something ridiculous and emotional that I would immediately regret. But I don’t turn back.
Outside, the rain is pouring down. I barely notice. Veins on fire. Skin thrumming. John.
Chapter 12: The Case of Mary Morstan
Not terribly difficult to be mistaken for a student. Muss hair artfully (with a touch of product), slouch. Carry a book bag. Dress down; old jeans and a thin t-shirt (John’s), a pseudo-hip retro cardigan from a secondhand shop. Trainers. Pair of glasses; horn-rimmed plastic browlines, false lenses. (Been ages since I’ve required a disguise.) Look shy, awkward. Twist feet in slightly. Standing by the main entrance at the LSE library, staring down at my phone, scrolling through texts (just like the seven students scattered around me) paper cup of coffee in my left hand. Mary walks right past me. Doesn’t recognise me. Perfect.
Mary is also in a disguise (of sorts).
Wearing perfume (expensive, new: unusual), blue pumps on her feet, tights on her legs (bought from a shop down the street from her flat in Clapton). Wearing a dress with a low cut neckline. Lipstick. Her hair not in her usual ponytail or clipped up on the sides; hanging loose instead. Blow-dried, curled. (Her hair is a cross between blonde and mouse brown; she started off her life as a blonde and still thinks of herself that way: blonde in secondary school, always the short blonde girl in awkward photos. She spent some time in India as a young adult; her blonde hair would have made her stand out. Made her more attractive, unusual, alluring. Made her more obviously different. Gave her an unusual amount of male attention. She would have loved it and hated it. She does not dye her hair. She let it turn steadily darker as she aged. An interesting battle with the traditional markers of female beauty, with the markers of her own. An acceptance (perhaps a welcoming?) of the signs that she changes over time. That she can change.) She is dressed up, as if today is an important day. Dressed as someone not quite but almost entirely unlike the person she actually is.
She is meeting someone. The book club: an obvious ruse. She is meeting him tonight (whoever he is), but also, if I’m very lucky, for lunch. Difficult to prove, but I suspect I can. The homeless network has received its orders: a fifty pound note and a page with Mary’s photo printed on it, her particulars. Where/when/with whom? Answers will be forthcoming. Mary may imagine that my nights with John will keep me from tracking her, that she is safe not only from his notice and suspicion but also from mine. She is wrong.
Hacking into her work calendar was not difficult. (She and John have the oddest things in common; the kinds of passwords they choose being one of them. Not the same passwords, obviously, but the same pattern of passwords: objects of emotional value, childhood pets, and oddly, the online pseudonyms they each used to engage in arguments on the internet while at uni. John and Mary both: the appeal of the alternate identity, the secret self.) She has the lunch hour and then some blocked off and labelled merely as Lunch Meeting. No name attached. Only meeting without one. Most interesting event of the day.
The calendar pinned up behind the enquiry desk lists the librarians scheduled to work each shift; I managed a glance. According to John, Mary worked two night shifts last week (unusual): Tuesday night (when John left Clapton and joined me at a crime scene, fell asleep after two in the morning face down on the sofa) and Thursday night (he insisted on bringing over a DVD to watch, and spent the evening with his right leg entwined with mine, his hand resting casually on my knee). The schedule: Thursday: yes, Mary’s name listed there (MM rather than her full name in order to prevent others doing precisely what I am doing); Tuesday: someone else’s initials. Mary was not here Tuesday night. Won’t be here next Tuesday night either. A lie.
Mary’s blue shoes clap against the brick, and I follow her, still staring at my phone. Her curly hair bounces with each step. No one notices me. No one thinks my behaviour is odd. Even as I speed up a bit as she turns a corner and crosses the street. I glance at my watch (indicate that I fear I am late for something). Stuff phone into pocket, where it immediately buzzes. Pull it back out. John.
Where do I meet you tonight? Baker St? Angelo’s? Or is there a crime scene that needs your attention?
Stab of warmth. John. Too early in the day to make these plans; normally John’s texts asking these sorts of questions come around four o’clock, as his shift nears its end, not before noon. Sitting in his office at the clinic, between patients. Typically he makes himself a cup of tea, picks up a biscuit. Instead he’s thinking of me.
Our attention. Nothing yet. Preference? SH
Mary turns at a side street. Dodge a man with a handcart, keep her in view. Speed up to catch her before she slips away.
Baker St, I think. Want to watch X Factor. Should I move the telly back?
Watch her blue shoes and her dress disappear inside a restaurant. Bookshop across the street with a picture window. Will retire there to watch.
I’ve put the cow hides there for now. Telly’s fine where it is. SH
She is seated alongside the window rather than in front of it; a pity, but good enough. She is facing toward the window; leaving the remaining seat for him, letting him have the view of the front door and any oncoming waiters. Mary in the passive seat, the receptive seat. Not completely but almost entirely unlike her. She sips at her water. The look on her face: delight. Anticipation. That rush of adrenaline that comes from putting everything at risk, hovering on the edge of a precipice. Odd amounts in common with John. They are not so terribly matched.
I’m not even going to ask. I’ll pick something up then?
Cars pull up; one parks almost a street away. Man in a suit; a likely-looking candidate. Married. Slightly balding. Good looking, but not overly so. Clearly successful (expensive suit; expensive shoes. Tie pin). Crosses the street and enters the restaurant; Mary rises, they embrace. She kisses his cheek. Hands touch and linger. She sits; he across from her. The fluttering of napkins, shifting of feet. Their hands on the table. He plays with her fingers. She laughs. Flirting. A date.
Anything you like. SH
Exit the bookshop, move past the man’s car. (Bentley; in red. Unmistakable from a distance.) Stop adjacent; pull out phone. Mimic sending a frantic text. Shift around in order to snap a photo of the licence plate. Sigh dramatically; shake head, Push glasses up the bridge of nose. Shove hands back into pockets. Displays required to prevent notice; agitated student texting on the pavement not remarkable in the slightest. Walk back toward the bookshop, lean against the brick wall. Pull out phone. Snap a picture of Mary, looking adoringly at the balding man. (More testosterone than John. Greater sex drive? More ambitious, certainly.)
Send a text to Lestrade: ask him to run the plate number. Email the photo as a kind of evidence. Lestrade more likely to take such a request seriously if photographic evidence available. As if snapping a picture and sending it suggests a more serious request than merely texting the number plate.
What’s this about then?
Important. Name/address required. SH
Another glance up at Mary; she has her hand on his face, she’s smiling at him. Unfamiliar look. Such bold passivity. Strange. Lestrade doesn’t answer right away; good sign. He’s running the plate for me.
Phone buzzes again. Lestrade? Awfully quick it if were. No. Mycroft. Nearly push phone back into my pocket out of sheer childishness. Walk back up to the main road and glare petulantly at the CCTV cameras before glancing down at the screen.
Is this really the best use of your time?
Amazing how Mycroft’s sneering tone seems to be attached and dripping from each text he sends.
Is it the best use of yours? SH
Three streets down. Slip into a shop and change clothes in an unattended changing room; return to proper trousers and shoes, leave John’s nearly-torn t-shirt on underneath a pressed shirt. (Something appealing about having it on; it smells like him.) Leave the trainers (horrid); push the glasses and jeans back into the bookbag. Sling it over my shoulder. Hang the cardigan from a hook on the changing room wall. Phone buzzes. Lestrade.
James Carstairs. 4 Myddelton Sq Clerkenwell. What did he do?
Posh address (relatively). Fits with the make of his car, price of his shoes. Hail a taxi. No time to respond to Lestrade (probably moved on to something else by now anyway), must find out more. Taxi weaves through traffic; must focus. Address and name; search through the various databases for which I have passwords (oh Mycroft, your sad little security), and determine that he’s an estate agent, up market. Linked to the London School of Economics in any meaningful way? Not even a graduate. No obvious connection. No non-obvious one. His lunch meeting with Mary: could be professional (possibly), but highly unlikely. He would never be seen near her flat in Clapton, smelling like rancid chicken fat. Wouldn’t dream of it. What would a wealthy estate agent want from a night-shift librarian (other than the obvious)? Mary neither owns, nor is financially capable of owning, property. The interaction between the two (James and Mary, Mary and James) speaks of nothing other than intimacy. (He was playing with her fingers.)
Mary has failed to avoid infidelity within a marriage for the fourth (actually fifth, barring semantics) time. It would have been insanity to expect anything other than this.
Four Myddelton Square is an imposing townhouse. Windows on the upper floor suggest at least two children (daughters, not yet in their teens). The wallpaper: a wife. See movement inside. Household help? No. Expensive dress. Wife is home. Putting flowers is a vase. Moving her hand to music. Completely unaware. Phone buzzes. Check. Mycroft. (Why won’t he leave me alone?)
What you are considering is extremely unwise.
Infidelity is a betrayal that hurts primarily through knowledge. Minus the knowledge: days proceed as usual. Flowers go into vases. Music plays on. Children get their educations in the countryside and come home for the holidays. If knowledge could be deleted (deleted from their hard drives, reset, the evidence removed, no witnesses left to speak or resurrect), they could be victimless. But they are never victimless.
Suppose sometimes they are, or could be: open marriages, polyamory/polyandry: but those only change the definitions. Even those arrangements have versions of infidelity, all different. Is that the case here? Wife, with tulips: large, expensive house; the red Bentley. The two children. Osborne and Little wallpaper. Christopher Guy furniture. Uncertain. Unlikely. She is building something within the walls of that house, something very specific, and he (James) is deliberately tearing it down. Another poor sod who loves a risk. (He is an estate agent, after all.) She would leave him and take everything he owns with her. She would ruin him.
Phone vibrates. Text. Mycroft again? No. John. Welcome, but why now? He’s seeing patients. Mid-afternoon. Usually too busy, tells me to leave him alone. He is thinking of me. One kiss, one real kiss: I am constantly on his mind. (As he is constantly on mine.)
Had a patient this morning who thought he had leprosy.
The stories of John’s patients; historically a way to while away the time between cases, between cups of tea and bad telly programmes. He is feeling impatient, anxious. Wants to fill the space with something (anything). I kissed him; he kissed me back. Unambiguous. He must wonder what I meant by it. (What did I mean by it?) The order of things has shifted. He wants to stay at Baker Street tonight, which suggests an intimate evening rather than a public one. Does he plan to take things further? (Stab of anxiety/anticipation. Hard to separate the two.) Will he tell me, finally, that he has to make a choice, me (danger, disaster) or Mary (disaster, danger), and he has chosen her?
Did he? SH
By tonight I will have definitive evidence to prove that her danger/disaster ratio is at least as high as mine.
I think he was actually disappointed that he didn’t.
As it is, John is not a victim. He doesn’t know; Mary is protecting him. She will continue to protect him until she is finished with him, until his (expressive, open) face brings her more shame and guilt than pleasure. Minus this knowledge (presuming, of course, that Mary doesn’t pick up a disease along the way, but surely not, she is more than experienced in these areas) John is not harmed. If I tell him: harm occurs. And I am the deliverer of it.
Sometimes pain is good.
I would be. Leprosy is interesting. SH
There is nothing for me here, in this posh neighbourhood with this unsuspecting wife. Mycroft imagines I was about to confront her, to warn her, to give her evidence, but that was never my plan. I only wanted to know who James Carstairs was. The opposite of John. Everything John is not. A calculated risk where John is a certainty. In that lies the beginning and the end of his importance to Mary.
A girl from the network stops me in front of 221b. I’m late; John has already arrived, the food (Thai) is getting cold. I texted him to eat, but he insists on waiting. (Is this a date?) The girl (called Jane, I believe) shoves the paper in my hand. The photograph of Mary. Someone must have followed her after work. It’s been two and a half hours since her shift ended. In pencil: 4 Myddelton. Red Bentley. That is where she is, where I could find her. Where I could bring John, show him the truth. Finish this.
Or I could bring this other form of infidelity (John’s, with me) to Mary. Two can play at that game. Two are playing. John hovering on the edge, with danger on either side. Not yet taking the decisive plunge. Mary has already fallen.
I walk up the stairs uncertain, but John’s face (his open, honest, familiar face) stops me. We watch terrible telly sitting on my bed. (The food isn’t cold at all.) When he laughs I can feel it vibrate all the way through me. He leans his elbows on the pillows, rests his hand on my shoulder, his finger against my neck. He doesn’t mention the kiss, so I don’t either. He doesn’t confront me, or make demands. He wipes peanut sauce from my face with his fingers, licks them. I stare at his hands. He falls asleep in my bed, resting against my chest. I don’t fall asleep until the sun begins to rise.
Chapter 13: James
Eyes fly open. Feet on the stairs: not Mrs. Hudson’s. Male. (Danger? An enemy?) Brain fuzzy for a moment, as if interrupted mid-conversation, mid-deduction, ultimately distracted; caught in the act, asleep. An odd dream. (Fire? Great expanse of snow, something about a handgun and a piece of plaster, brick?) Gone now. Shoes on the stairs, one step at a time. Cautious in the dark. Trying to be quiet. A man, in rubber-soled shoes. A limp.
John. (Deduced in less than three seconds; I have memorized the cadence of his gait, complicated as it is with the variations of his psychosomatic disability. Regardless, I can recognize John by the sound of his feet as he walks, even up stairs, even while half asleep, at each stage in the progress of his limp.)
It’s some time after two o’clock in the morning. Closer to three. (Why is he limping? It’s only been three days since our last exposure to danger (a case, a fleeing suspect, a knife). Three days is not enough time for the limp to return naturally.) No moon tonight. Only the rough yellow glow of the sodium lights outside to see by. Sit up, feet on the cold floor boards. Rise. No time to pull on a dressing gown. (Is John hurt?) Burst of adrenaline.
Hand on the doorknob as the door opens. I feel the cold air in my lungs like I’ve been holding my breath. (Have I?) John. Shoulders hunched, limp pronounced, but not as bad as it comes to be. No cane. He’s been stumbling through the city, making it worse. He is startled to see me there; he barely can, in this light. Startled look, his eyes blinking rapidly (sign of agitation, strong emotion, distress). His face turned sallow in the faint sodium glow.
He is not clutching a wound, or nursing a broken nose or facial fractures, or staunching blood from a bullet wound or knife slash or puncture, or splinting a broken rib with his hands, or spitting out teeth and blood, or otherwise displaying signs of recent violence. Not hurt. Blinking rapidly; face slightly damp around the eyes. Hurt in another way. Complicated. Mary. (Did he discover her secret?) My heart is beating far too fast.
“I woke you.” Not question, of course. John lived with me long enough to recognize the bleariness of me when I’m only just awake. Pyjama bottoms. t-shirt (his). No dressing gown. Bare feet. “I’m sorry. Didn’t mean to...I...”
He wants to come in (obviously). I pull open the door and make way for him; he limps inside.
The limp. Curious. Did the discovery of Mary’s infidelity bring it on (fast)? Emotional danger, emotional wounds; these things cause a spike in adrenaline too (or can do). Risk of emotional damage doesn’t trigger the same kind of vitality and confidence in John that physical danger does. Emotions and their effects: not a subject on which I will ever feel confident enough to compose a monograph. Cigarette ash: yes. The impact of intense emotional states on the human body, on human motivation: no. Too varied. To many variables. Unpredictable. Personal. (Interesting challenge, however. Total confidence is dull.)
“All right?” My voice is scratchy with sleep. I can hear my own concern in my voice; unguarded (half-asleep). A kind of an echo chamber, hearing one’s own feelings like that; hall of mirrors amplifying it, underscoring it, twisting it into shapes. The pain on his face is obvious. I feel helpless. I dislike seeing him in pain. Feels like a hot and pulsing weight resting on my chest, holding back my breath.
He looks at me. His eyes are bloodshot and damp. He looks haunted. I put my fingers on his shoulder, my palm on his chest. He smiles.
“All right.” He puts his hand over mine. “I’ve never seen you look so...worried.” His smile looks strange against the pain in his eyes. “Trying out that caring lark, are you?”
“It’s nearly three o’clock in the morning.” Immediately defensive. Flash of hot embarrassment. “I thought you might be hurt.” Glance down at his leg. “You’re...” About to say, you’re limping, but think better of it. The verbal dancing that goes on when you’re trying not to cause more pain. A strange act, but strangely necessary. John.
He looks down. He knows what I was about to say. His hand drops to his side; I remove mine, cross my arms over my chest. Chilly. Body is trembling slightly. Waking up to strange sounds, potential dangers; body on alert. John rubs his fingers over his eyes. I reach behind him and close the door lightly. Keep him inside. Keep him.
“You’re not all right.” Also not a question.
He sighs. There’s a pause. He might not respond. He is neatly hiding his eyes with his fingers, the part of him that makes his distress most visible. He doesn’t want to tell me (why not?). His mouth: tight, small, as if holding something back. Something in him that wants to spill out, but he keeps it in. “Argument.”
Ah. Not (just) discovery (if it were that), not just facts and evidence. Confrontation. Did he find out about James Carstairs, the man with the wife and two daughters at school, with the posh town house? Or did he discover that (once, twice?) Mary was not where she’d said she’d be: caught in another, smaller lie? Her lying is pathological; she lies whether she needs to or not. Book Clubs and Bridge and night shifts and volunteering and whatever else she’s picked up recently to play a shell game with John’s life. Could have been anything, any small betrayal. (Could have been over money: those blue heels weren’t cheap. The perfume: a gift, but would she admit that to John?) These petty tensions that come with married life incite the limp, as well as distance from me. Easy to imagine what John might argue over with Mary. Best not to ask (if he doesn’t want to tell). The secrets married couples keep to themselves (or think they do).
It only hurts him this much because he loves her.
He motions to the sofa. “D’you mind?”
He wants to stay here for the night. Wants to curl up on the sofa (not in my bed, not against me, his hair against my cheek, his breath warm against my (his) t-shirt, calming and obvious and real). Small spike of hurt in the pit of my stomach; feels like a rejection. Shake my head clear.
“Of course not.” I wouldn’t say no. To John? Never. He doesn’t pay half the rent anymore, but I still consider him my flatmate. “Stay.”
He hesitates for a moment. So do I. Teetering on the edge. It’s late. I’m shaking with interrupted sleep. His eyes: sore and bloodshot and full of sadness. Anger. Hurt. I take his hand. Lead him through the dark. I pull back the bedclothes on my bed (the left side; the left side for John) and motion for him to sit. He does. Pulls off his shoes, his jacket, his jumper, dumps them on the floor. He is so tired his hands are trembling (like mine). Stands: hands hesitate for a moment on the buckle of his belt. He looks at me. A question on his face I don’t entirely understand. (We’ve done this before. Many times. Why a question now?)
Realize suddenly that I’m standing in front of him, watching him (staring). Revealing something. What? Desire? Affection? Concern? (Love? Would that be a surprise? I think it would be. I’m showing him my hand, the one I didn’t know was hidden.) I move over to the other side of the bed, climb in. Cold feet. John has pulled off his jeans and folds himself into my bed. He lies on his back: tense. (Why? Am I propositioning him? No different than any other night, curled up together. Him asleep on my chest. Innocent. (Mostly.) Is it?) He rolls toward me, puts his (left) hand on my shoulder, then my neck (cold fingers). He moves closer and kisses me.
His lips, his tongue. His cheek under my hand (fine stubble); smoothness of the back of his neck. Heat. His body: so close. Pressed against me. Solid. Real. Aching desire for him; very nearly overwhelming. Cold hands, heat rising from him, his stomach, his waist, the small of his back. My wandering (right) hand. His (left) knee on my thigh. His (left) hand tangled in my hair. John.
He breaks away from me, rolls away (why?). He exhales. “Sorry.”
Why is he sorry? (For stopping, or for starting in the first place?) Want to ask. Instead: “It’s all right.” I rest my hand on his stomach (warm). Feel his breathing. Sudden need for air (not enough air in the room).
“I’m just...” He breathes in, out. “Confused. Upset. Exhausted.” Puts his hand over mine. Trembling.
When I wake up, he’s already gone. How did his leaving not wake me? (Body has gotten so used to him.)
Need your help. Come if convenient. Or if not. SH
When John arrives, he’s brought Mary with him. No more limp. Argument settled in the passing of a couple of days? It appears so. Domestic bliss (such as it is): returned. The sitting room dotted with plastic crates of various sizes, each filled with garden implements from three separate garden sheds (all from the same street in Loughton). Working on an extremely cold case with only a handful of photos and a cracked skull to go on. A murder is a murder: any, even a ten year old case, will do in a pinch.
I want the distraction.
Saturday morning; the blissful couple have been out shopping. John carrying bags that are clearly Mary’s. Mary looking chipper in bright red lipstick. (Bright red lipstick on a Saturday morning? How deliberate. How earnest. A statement in itself: of what? Warning? Inviting? Red: complicated.) A tentative reconciliation. Her face (as always) is friendly, pleasant, engaged, and resolutely blank behind the eyes. Like a china doll on a shelf; a single expression deliberately engraved, and nothing more. John looks resolute. Not unhappy, not filled with tension. His shoulders: relaxed. He plans not to raise the subject of the argument again; trusts that Mary won’t either. The eerie quiet after a violent storm. His eyes: trouble sleeping. He drops the bags (clothes? Possibly shoes) by the door.
“What have we got this time?” John eyes the crates.
“Looking for a murder weapon that could cause this wound.” Show the photograph to John. Measurements written on it in pencil. “I already deduced that it was certainly a garden implement. In one of these crates.”
“I see.” John rubs his forehead. “It’s good you’re starting early in the day.”
“My god.” Mary has stopped dead in at the entrance to the kitchen. “This place is a health hazard.”
“Don’t look in the fridge.” John is amused. “It will terrify you.”
“Avoid the microwave as well, if you have a delicate constitution.” Seems fair to warn her. The screaming can be so unsettling, and Mrs. Hudson wouldn’t like it.
“...Are these...” The beginnings of a question. What could she be looking at? The pigeons (preserved in formaldehyde; not that interesting)? The sliced asphalt? Oh of course: the fingernails.
“Yes.” Best nip that in the bud. “Yes, they are, human fingernails. Don’t worry, they were removed postmortem.”
John, opening up a crate, is stifling a laugh. “So, how shall we do this?”
“Honestly, James, do you eat food that’s come out of this kitchen?” Mary, the hard heels of her shoes (heels, not blue) pecking at the tile as she walks around the kitchen table. She hasn’t noticed. James. An amateur’s mistake. Switching out names. Names placed in the same mental category: loved ones, children, pets, colleagues, friends, lovers to whom I am lying. Still hasn’t caught it. “You must need regular doses of penicillin.”
John: his face moved from amusement, contentment, tired but resolved peace, to absolute agony in the space of a few seconds. His whole body is tensed up. His hands in fists, his mouth squeezed tight into a sharp white line. The colour is gone from his face. Even his knees are tense. That was like a physical blow; John wasn’t prepared, didn’t have his guard up. Mary can’t see him; there’s a stack of crates between them. She is wandering through the kitchen like its some kind of department store display, and John is self-destructing.
Of course he does. (How could I have thought otherwise?)
He knows about the infidelities; the reasons why her marriages ended, probably even about the therapist. He’s known all along. He knew when he married her; is it, in part, why he married her? An attraction to her basic brokenness, something he understands so intimately, both of them being fundamentally broken by events in the past? He knows: her self-esteem issues, the destructive influence of her father, her guilt and shame. He even knows about James Carstairs. Down to the specifics; his name. I didn’t tell him; Mycroft surely didn’t. Mary herself is careful: did she choose to tell him herself? Of course she did. Guilt. She wants to do better. To be absolved. She wants to be honest; honest like John’s honest face, John’s agonized face. Honest back to him the way he has been honest to her (about me, about his feelings for me). Tit for tat.
Is it? Is James Carstairs a form of revenge?
Is she punishing him for spending time with me? For that kiss? (Does she know?) For (innocent) nights in my bed? For being an honest house divided from the very start, partially hers, partially (mostly?) mine? (She is attracted to that quality but also frustrated by it.) Could Mary be that spiteful? Hard to say. Maybe not deliberately, but unintentionally. Subconsciously. Bringing up his name now: clearly an accident (but not unexpected; could be anticipated). Mary’s brokenness spilling over and breaking John. She wants it to be controllable, as John’s is controllable. It isn’t.
John’s face: this isn’t even the first time.
Of course it's not. They have been married a little over a year and this isn’t the first time Mary has confessed to an infidelity. It’s written all over his face. The first was hard; the second (third?) even harder. His breath: deliberate inhale, exhale. He’s shaking. It’s everything he can do to stay standing. The agony of it. Why this? Being called by his (James’) name. John: erased, painted over, removed. (Mary, what have you done?)
She still hasn’t noticed. She’s not going to. She’s looking into the sink now. “Do you wash dishes in this cesspit?”
Open up a crate and pull out a trowel (definitely not the murder weapon). Show it to John. His eyes (dark with anger, shame, agony) lock with mine. He doesn’t move.
He even knows that I know. (Of course he does; how could I not?) He is not hiding his anger from me, not even trying. What a delicate dance this has been. Moreso even than I realized. I reach out and hold one of his shaking fists. He doesn’t resist.
“One of the corners of the blade, perhaps? What do you think? Possible?”
He just looks at me. He can’t respond.
“Agreed.” I drop it back into the crate with a clang. “Not the trowel.” I remove my hand from his and he shifts. Gets down on his knees, his right leg suddenly useless. He needs to shift it underneath him, place it. He opens a crate. Keeps his face away from the kitchen. A moment of privacy.
“How long do you think this is going to take?” Mary is leaning against the wall, looking into the sitting room. She is clever, but not clever enough. Can’t read the tension in his back. The sudden loss of function in the leg. Can’t hear his awkward, deliberate breathing. Can’t feel the tension filling the room.
“Oh, well into the night, I expect.” My voice: evenly paced. Unreadable. That alone should be a clue. She doesn’t hear it. John looks up at me. Gratitude.
She sighs. “I’ll go home then, all right?” She picks up her bags. “See you later, John?”
“Could it be the shovel?” I pull one out with a flourish. (It clearly isn’t.)
“Later,” John grunts through layers of pain. He coughs, as if the crates are dusty (they aren’t). “Sure. Later.”
Chapter 14: Pattern Recognition
Fingers in place, (new, slightly inferior) bow hovering. The notes are already there, waiting to be rung. This immediate future is predetermined, predictable: the parameters are already set. There can be no future other than the one established by these key contingent factors: the pressure of my fingers, exactly in place, waiting. Pull the bow across the strings. The opening notes sound, perfectly, as predicted. The music (certain, uncomplicated) is the result of this small violence of hair against steel, my muscle memory, and the pressure of my fingertips. Unswerving. The evidence always points to a clear and obvious end. It’s only a matter of recognizing its pattern.
Tchaikovsky (of course): Souvenir d’un Lieu Cher. Gaudy, maudlin, most definitely (at the very least) bordering on trite. John doesn’t seem to mind. (John never minds.) Forced, by all these hours playing Tchaikovsky for John, to acknowledge the subjectivity of taste: observing his enjoyment makes me hear it differently, as he must hear it, even as the notes are exposed under my fingers in a familiar pattern. Ostentatious over-emotionalism on one hand; but also unpretentious, earnest honesty.
John sitting in his armchair, his eyes shut, his face relaxed (finally). The pain Mary caused still raw and hovering over him. (She has texted him four times. As each arrives, he glances at the name on the screen and winces. Only responds to the final one. Short message.) His hands are loose and resting on the arms of the chair. Palms down. Neat, clean fingernails. Jeans: slightly dirty from the crates (packed up and returned to the Met now; pruning saw identified, old flecks of blood still caught in its teeth. Simple). John’s chest rising and falling steadily. T-shirt visible under his shirt; buttons undone. The subtle shifting of his Adam’s apple. His right leg at an odd angle (it’s causing him pain). The reflection of the lamp in the shine of his belt buckle. (Recall: the sound of it against the floor of my bedroom. Feel of his skin, his knee on my thigh. His lips against mine.)
I remember these intimacies with startling clarity at the most inappropriate times. In taxis, while standing over corpses, in mid-conversation with Lestrade; standing in a queue at the bank. The smell of him comes back to me in an instant, and with it all my predictable physical reactions. My rapidly beating heart. A slight flush. My ill-timed tumidity. Never have I been so thoroughly distracted, and so thoroughly desperate to be so distracted. Maddening. Deep breath: concentrate on the music. My infallible muscle memory. The remains of takeaway (Chinese) on the table. John sighs, shifts slightly in his chair. Add a flourish to a phrase and he smiles. His face: that smile is for me, it makes my eyelids heavy with pleasure. He likes to hear me play.
Nearing the end. Turn to the window, as if I’ve been staring at the empty space above the street rather than at him. Last note: let it ring until it fades to nothing. Stand with my violin still against my jaw, fingers loose on its neck, lightly stroking the strings. Strangely nervous (why?).The stick of my bow against the seam of my trousers. Silence. John’s breathing. My rapid heartbeat in my ears.
Can hear him prepare to speak; small shift in his seat, fingernails drag against the upholstery, his lips part. “Lovely. Beautiful.” I enjoy John’s compliments. Burst of warmth in my chest.
The shuffle of his feet; he’s leaning forward. Small hesitation. “Did you...” John is always starting sentences he doesn’t finish. “When you’ve dated someone...been with someone, did you play for them?” A pause. “Of course you must have.” He leans back in the armchair again (the slight squeak of the legs shifting against the carpet).
At first it sounds like something that required a yes or no answer, which would be mildly awkward to provide, given that sentence construction, but the you must have appears to make it a rhetorical question. Don’t believe it requires an answer. Odd that he’s asking such things; thought I’d been most clear that dating (or sleeping with someone, since that’s clearly what he’s asking) is not my area. The evidence of that is relatively plain.
“It’s...” he begins again, and just when I think he won’t finish this sentence either, he does. “It’s very seductive, you know. It would be...quite effective.”
“Hm.” It’s a non-committal response. Am inordinately pleased that he finds my playing seductive. Is he remembering the same intimacies I am? (My hands on the back of his neck, in his hair, creeping down his back?) Is he longing for them? Makes me want to play him something else. I raise my bow.
“So did you? Or...do you?” Not a rhetorical question, then. I turn and look at him. His eyes are open, hungry, he’s tensed a bit. Bad leg forgotten (for the moment). His breath has sped up slightly too (just like mine). Arousal. I cock an eyebrow. John is asking one question but meaning another altogether. These are not the kinds of word games at which I excel. What does he mean? Am I sleeping with someone else now? As he has Mary, do I have someone too? Do I play for someone else as he sits in Clapton watching X-Factor with Mary?
“Did you play like that for your...your ex-...” a pause. “Your....” he reaches for a word and fails to find one. I know what he’s cycling through: girlfriends, boyfriends, not sure which to use. Surely he must know by now that I have a preference. Can’t imagine me with either men or women, struggling to pronounce the words at all? Or he can, he can imagine me with both and cannot choose between them? Not wanting to be offensive, to make assumptions. (Making erroneous assumptions: it’s what we do best.) Finally he settles on: “Did you play for your...former lovers?” Gender neutral. A strike for political correctness. Bravo, John.
I swing the bow up and hover it over the strings again. Haven’t decided what to play. My fingers: not placed, no contingency. Pause. Still an awkward sentence to answer directly. Must clarify. (Is that what he wants to know? Surely I’ve been clear on this point as well.)
“Don’t have any.”
Tchaikovsky again? Or something else? Tchaikovsky will always please him, will always be seductive.
“No former ones?” A short laugh. “Are you still sleeping with them, then?”
What an odd presumption. John really observes nothing about me at all if he imagines that’s true. Perhaps that is the sub-conversation here: is John feeling jealous of people who do not exist? “No. I haven’t had any lovers.” Concerto in D? Is one Tchaikovsky piece as good as the next for John? Place fingers; prepared.
“What?” Genuine surprise. “None at...” Another sentence he won’t finish. None at all. That’s right John. I suppose that’s odd. Unexpected. I don’t really care. “Oh.” He exhales. “I.” Possibly the shortest sentence ever uttered. A lengthy pause. I stroke my violin strings, wait for him to make sense of it.
What does it mean that he didn’t know this about me? Nothing. It means nothing. There is no before and after consciousness, sex isn’t the making of a man. There is no secret knowledge that is unlocked, surely. It makes no difference, except for the difference it appears to make to John. There is a palpable tension rising between us which I cannot strictly define. Don’t want to be standing by the window, violin tucked under my chin. Want to be in my bed, with John beside me, his hands on me, his mouth against mine. Uncertain how to move from here to there. No direct path. No map. I turn further so I can see him, see his face. Take the violin out from under my chin. Wait. Watch.
“I thought that...” John sighs. He looks nervous. Strangely nervous. Is it nervous? Something else?
Apparently this is a more significant revelation than I realized. Why? Another category for John to add to his list of areas where my knowledge is clearly lacking? Has everything changed meaning (again)?
He rubs his index finger against his lip. “Well, at first, you know, I did sort of wonder about that. You did say it wasn’t your area. I remember that. I mean, I figured...maybe you weren’t currently interested in...well, a relationship. A difficult break up, or something. Later I wondered if maybe you, uh...you didn’t have...”
Didn’t have what? If I had a useless therapist like John’s I’m sure I would have had this conversation multiple times already, but largely people don’t share their opinions of my sexual history (or lack thereof) with me. I have noted that many people presume I have no drives whatsoever in that area, making them oddly relaxed and pliant in my presence. The asexual male: not entirely a man, most definitely not a woman. The issues of neither. Absurd set of ideas. But a useful fiction. Didn’t realize John subscribed to it, in whole or in part. Is this why he was (has been) hesitant with me?
John licks his lips. Nervousness. Oddly appealing. John’s tongue. Flash of sense memory: John’s tongue on my lips, in my mouth, and (briefly) against my (right) earlobe. The evidence of physical desire (his against my hip, mine on his thigh) plain. Obvious. Surely he noted that. Had he imagined until then that I didn’t have any need for sex? (Needs can exist without being fulfilled.) Or did he think I had no desire (for anyone, result of a difficult break up, damaged, emotionally scarred, or for him in particular)? Kisses and stroking and touches that were endless but never resulting in sex: a year-long experiment in my sexuality? (Well played, John!) Or did he wonder if I lacked the ability to become physically aroused, perhaps? (Did he wonder that? Picture him imagining it, in the dark, alone with his erection in his fist, being my miracle cure, his hands, his mouth. Intoxicating thought.)
John has not yet finished that sentence, and I have already deduced at least two of his masturbatory fantasies involving me and solved at least one riddle of my own.
Opt to help him. No need for more suspense. A prompt. “You thought I didn’t have a libido?”
“I did wonder that.” John flushes. I’ve embarrassed him. Difficult admission?
“Ah. Well, yes, I do.”
“Yes.” John rubs the back of his neck with the his fingers. “Yes, I think I...discovered that.” He adjusts his posture. His jeans are becoming uncomfortable. This conversation is arousing him. I can’t say the same isn’t true for me, though perhaps for different reasons.
“So.” He looks me directly in the eye. “You have a libido, but you have spent your life opting not to indulge it? Is that it?”
Consider for a moment how to answer. The truth: my (fifteen year old) hands up a girl’s shirt in the cloakroom of the village church. She agreed to it, I was curious. Soft flesh encased in cotton. Quick, clinical exploration. Since then: no contact (other than John) anyone would consider intimate. No real question about my preferences (men rather than women) but never bothered to test the hypothesis. No reason to question it. No real desire for the complications of relationships, the little humiliations. Never so planned that it was a decision; just the result of many small choices, day to day, week to week. I suppose the answer is simply yes.
John is looking at me expectantly. Waiting. He wants there to be a reason, when there really isn’t one. I’m just not the type. (Or, as my mother said, “You’ve decided you’re too independent to be loved.” She thought it was only a sign of my emotional immaturity. Possibly true, in retrospect.)
“The opportunities presented have never been entirely...” consider the following word as I speak, search for the right one and fail to find it. Never been entirely desirable? Not strictly true. Available? Occasionally. Sufficient, somehow. Certainly true, but too poignant to express. Settle on: “Appropriate.” Not a lie, not at all. There have been opportunities, suggestions, offers, proposals. They never seemed entirely appealing enough, or worth the effort, or worth the time. Or the social contortions. Or: there were more pressing matters to attend to. There were almost always more pressing matters. Cases, or cocaine. Mostly cases.
“Don’t you think you might be missing something?” Struck by the sensation that we are having two conversations at the same time, though the secondary one is on an unclear topic. “I mean, isn’t this a realm of human existence that it would behoove you to have some understanding of?”
Hesitate. Not sure how to convey the answer to this question in both realms in which it exists. Only certain what the top level actually means. “I understand how copulation works.” Must sometimes state the obvious.
John smiles. It’s a fond smile, but something else. He licks his lips again. Just realized I have provided a third, previously unconsidered masturbatory fantasy for John. The look on his face is practically predatory. (And I am the prey.) Shiver down my spine. Have to put the violin down before I drop it. My hands are trembling. His eyes never leave mine. “You think that’s enough?”
“Enough? For what? Work? Yes.” Feels like the wrong answer. Is the right answer no? No, it’s not enough. Not enough where you’re involved, John. Never enough. Sometimes too much, but even then, also not enough. Complex. A paradox, like every other piece of you. He stares at me for a moment, look of vague amusement on his face, a moment of indecision as well. Like I’m a puzzle he’s solving (maybe I am). It resolves.
He stands. Walks over to me. Opens the violin case on the desk. Motions toward it. Wants me to put the violin down. Shaking hand fails to move. John takes my wrist between his thumb and his fingers, guides it. Slide the shoulder rest off before John takes the violin from me, places it carefully into its velvet cradle.
He snaps the case shut. “Everyone deserves to be touched, Sherlock.”
About to say, it isn’t really a matter of deserving, but the look on his face stops me. Unadulterated want. Lust. Love. I’m back on the roof, over a year ago, the novelty of being so close to him, feeling his breathing, the smell of his skin. Small spasm of panic. Uncharted waters.
He puts his hand on the back of my neck and pulls me close. He kisses me.
Chapter 15: Pair Bonding in Moles
Nothing is tentative now. Did not realise the degree to which he has been tentative until now. Petting me while half-asleep, pressing little kisses against my lips, his hand idly stroking my ankle: all just shadows. All merely a (potential) prelude to this. His fingers gripping my hair as if to hold me still, his teeth press into my bottom lip, his (left) hand tugging at my shirt. Undoing buttons, fingers brushing against my stomach as he undoes each. Transforming me. Leaving a path burned into my skin.
I was wrong. I didn’t understand this. Not at all.
The collection of chemicals (me) shifts, tilts, fills to the brim. Becomes unstable. Feel the surge of norepinephrine and vasopressin joining the constant flush of dopamine his presence elicits: feel it in the rush of emotions that rise to the surface of me. Aching (desperate and unstoppable) love, lust, adoration. For him. Only for him. (Always.) Imagine the brain MRI of this moment (his left hand rubbing a pattern against my ribs, his lips sucking a mark into my neck); my thalamus, my posterior hippocampus, occipital cortex. Bright spots of lust and desperate need visible and obvious. Undeniable. His name carved there in oxytocin. Chemical mind games. The brain’s natural addictions. (I love you, I love you, I love you.)
His hand sliding down against my hip (which he cradles for a moment in the hot palm of his hand) to the small of my back. Hand against me, fingers stretched out, he presses; grinding me into him. Varied pressure; hard and then soft. His fingers draw lines alongside my spine. Shiver: the tracks of his fingers trace hot residue under my skin that spreads out over me, envelops me. Leaves me hypersensitive, burning, everywhere he’s touched me. Heartbeat pounds in my ears, thrums through my body: fast. Not enough air.
Bury my face in his neck. Breathe him in. The smell of him; all the usual factors: his shampoo, his laundry detergent, that pleasant milky smell of his skin. A smell I would recognize anywhere. Breathe in his inevitable androstenol; his pheromones surely heightening my (obvious, palpable and prodding) arousal response.
My hands fall against his waist. Tug at his jumper; fingers feel thick and useless. Hint of a tremor that starts at my hands and moves through my whole body. His (left) hand shifts across my lower back, fingertips sliding under the waistband of my trousers. My head falls backward as if he’s triggered an autonomic response. Gasp. The moan in my throat is caught in his mouth as his lips caress mine. Right hand cupping the back of my head, fingers tangled in my hair. The texture of tongues against one another; the taste of his Earl Grey tea. He sucks my tongue so hard it hurts.
Sound of non-words in the back of his throat, vibrating against my jaw as he kisses me there too, short fingernails digging into the skin under my shoulder blade. Hot breath on my ear. Lips on my earlobe. Teeth. Fingers on the button of my trousers; rapidly unfastened.
Panting; body’s need for oxygen rising. The world has become very small; it is contained within this room, within the space that holds me (him). World becomes even smaller as his hand wriggles into my trousers and makes contact with my over-eager erection. It might all be over in a moment; the heat of his hand on my (now damp) sensitive flesh; rush of sensation so intense my knees buckle a little. He catches me. His legs: perfectly strong, perfectly stable. I can feel him smile against my neck. Kisses me. Feel his eyelashes against my skin.
“Bed.” His voice is slightly hoarse. Takes my hand (his thumb stroking my palm). Takes me to my own bedroom. (Traditional location for such a tryst. He plays by the book.) It is hard to imagine that any other room (or any other place) exists. (The world consists of his thumb on my palm. Tiny movement, bit of friction. Volumes of words absent from any language.) I can’t stop staring at him. His lips are red and a little swollen. I can see my own teeth marks along his bottom lip (don’t recall biting him).
My bedroom. He pulls off his jumper, his shirt. My breath is shallow and fast, I take in gulps of air and watch as his skin appears in front of me. Familiar, but unfamiliar all at once. (More contradictions.) His body, military tight and lean. Straight lines. Familiar to me, but different now, somehow. Used to seeing his shoulders hunched over a computer, or hunched over the sink (washing the dishes), or hunched down with the weight of the groceries. His body padded and protected by jumpers and coats and distance. Stands straight now; unflinching. Unflinching in the face of certain danger, chaos (me). The circular bullet wound; angry red blotch when we first met, only months old then. Sensitive and raw, still swollen when I first saw it. Now a pale pink curiosity, nearly flat, the memory of an unthinkable intrusion into his body (how dare they!) filled in and healed over. A mark that helps to explain why he’s here (here with me, now, half naked, staring at me). Black is white, white is black; what is clearly dangerous is a comfort, and what is comfortable must be dangerous. Spun around.
Naked to the waist, he reaches for me. Pushes my clothes off of me as though he is unwrapping a present. (The soft touch of his fingers against my feet as he takes off my socks, one by one.) Unfolds me from my layers of fabric, gently, leaving me standing in front of him entirely naked, trembling, as erect as I have ever been in my life. He stares. He touches my hip (lightly, as if I might break. I might). Leans forward and kisses my (left) nipple, slick tongue circles it. For the second time tonight I fear I am nearly finished. Choke back a sound I don’t even recognize.
He quickly undoes his belt, flicks the button of his jeans and undoes the zip; he pulls off the remains of his clothing in what appears to be one fluid motion. (Practiced. Feel a momentary stab of regret that I have not seen him unpracticed as well, for the sheer pleasure of the comparison.) Now visible: evidence I have correctly calculated (or, more properly: I have correctly fantasized about) the general size and width of his erect penis, based on the handful of times I have had the opportunity to come into enough bodily contact with it through the barriers of cloth and decorum to make an estimate. (Months of my own masturbatory fantasies proven right.) My blood must be filling with cortisol, my brain with dopamine. Unfathomably intense desire to touch him. Notice I am worrying the corner of my mouth with my tongue.
“Come here.” He pulls me onto my bed, onto him; awkward tumble. His skin (smooth, endless) presses and shifts against mine. Heady, overwhelming sensation of friction. End up half sprawled over him, knee between his thighs, one hand buried between pillows and the other on his shoulder. (Scar tissue.) Kisses me like he once did: on the forehead. Close my eyes and he kisses those too. Hands on either side of my face. Open my eyes again to see him looking at me, as if he’s trying to read me. Expression: tenderness. Affection. He’s watching my face, my body: wants to know if I’m all right, in favour, consenting. Kisses me gently, as if we’re starting over. Press my tongue between his lips as an answer.
His hands snake down my back and land on my bottom; hard grope that feels far better than it has any right to. Stifle a groan.
For the first time I wonder if he has a plan, a goal. (Series of steps that lead to an end result: copulation.) His hands firm on my bottom, shifting me against him, my perineum suddenly tingling with the closeness of his hands, desperate to be touched. Sudden desire to be invaded (by what?). Will say no to nothing. Have no boundaries. My penis, pressed between my stomach and his, is spilling fluid onto both of us; his is leaving a round wet patch on my pelvis. Friction. Sensation. Not enough but too much at the same time.
He breathes into my hair, a laugh. “This isn’t going to take very long, I don’t think.”
For a fraction of a second: hurt. Criticism? No. He’s talking about himself. Perhaps also about me, but definitely about himself. Shift to one side, put my hand on his chest, prop myself up on my elbow. Tuck one leg around his. Might as well be talking about me.
“No.” Agree. Lean forward and put my lips on his (right) nipple. Suck. A moan deep in his chest. Small fist of skin rises under my tongue. (The wonders of erectile tissue.) He strokes my back with his right hand, rubs his knuckles over my hip, slides down over my bottom.
Watch down the length of his body as my curious fingers slide across his stomach (damp now) and take hold of his penis. The sound this produces in his chest is needy and rumbling into his stomach. Hot and hard, living flesh made stiff by desire (for me). Squeeze. Run my thumb across his glans, feel the split of the skin there, slick dampness, the tight knot of his frenulum beneath it. His hips jump. He moans into my neck. These actions are not dissimilar to the only sexual act I have any experience with; run my fist down the shaft of his penis and back up again, run my fingers across his foreskin, thumb rolling around his glans. Even more fluid there already. His (left) hand joins mine, fingers in a knitted embrace. He is rough, desperate, fast. Speeds up my hand, then lets me linger on that knot of skin. Exploring him. Like me, but different. Fascinated.
“Sherlock.” Look at his face, his eyes half-closed, his mouth half open. Lean down and kiss him, slip my tongue into his mouth. Follow the dictates of his fingers; fast and rough. He cries out into me. Feel the heat of his semen on my hand. His fingers slow down, a languorous pace. Then he lets go, his lips still sucking lightly on my bottom lip. Spent. Breathing deep and fast. His body stills; his (right) hand resting on the small of my back, fingers unmoving. Watch the rise and fall of his chest, his eyes falling shut. Shift a little, bring my hand up to my face. See his ejaculate on my fingers. Put them in my mouth: taste. John. He hums; feel it vibrate through his body, into my skin. Look over, fingers in my mouth, see him watching me.
He takes my wrist. Let my fingers fall and he takes my hand; puts my fingers in his mouth, too. Nimble tongue; his mouth: hot. He pushes lightly on my hip and rolls me onto my back; my eyes flutter shut for a second and he is everywhere at once. He parts my legs and climbs between them; can guess what he’s going to do next and screw my eyes shut. Anticipation. Heart beating fast. Breathe.
But I am wrong. (How does he keep proving me wrong?) He lies on top of me, his skin against me. Damp and loose-muscled and warm. The tickle of his pubic hair against my pelvis. He kisses me: first on my mouth (gentle lips), my neck, my chest, across my stomach. He kisses the hollow spot at my hip bone, the inside of my thighs. A pause. Feel his breath against my erection. Open my eyes to see him staring for a moment, calculating. His hand hovering. He leans in, his hand grips my penis, and presses his tongue against my glans, eyes closing.
World condenses into one sharp point. Body shuts down all non-essential processes. Given over.
His tongue. (Rough. Hot. Nimble. Oh.)
Mouth. (Wet. Suction. Hint of teeth. Hot and certain.)
Feel his soft palate. Pressing. Pressure. His tongue. (Christ.)
His lips envelop me. All of me (transport, brain, all deductive abilities, all victories) condensed into him. One jut of erectile tissue. Under his lips. In his mouth.
My useless hands dig into the bedclothes.
His fingers caress my scrotum. Squeeze. There are sounds in my ears (my own voice) I don’t recognize. Can’t. Bliss. Perfect.
His lips against my frenulum. Slight brush of his chin (stubble). Growl in my chest. (More.)
Moaning, begging, words fall out of my mouth. No control. (Don’t want any.)
Hot damp thumb (my own pre-ejaculate, his saliva, indistinguishable now) on my glans, my frenulum. Pleasure: intense, severe like pain. Bliss. (Oh. Please. John.)
Fingers against me, rubbing, stroking. Hard friction, cool hands. He is talking, (a question?) I can’t understand. There are no words. (More. Please. More.)
My hand: pried away from bedclothes. He kisses my palm. Puts my (left) hand on the back of his head: fingers tangle in his hair. His (left? no: right) hand curls up against my hip and takes my (right) hand, laces our fingers together. Five points of contact. Groan. (Please.)
His lips, his tongue again, hot, wet, perfect (I missed them, don’t stop). Rumble of his voice around me, his voice humming through me.
Thumb: slips low. Under my scrotum. Circles my anus, presses lightly. (Slick thumb.)
Nimble tongue. (God yes. Never stop.)
Thumb rests hard against my perineum. Presses in circles. Prostate. Grip his hair, tug. Hard suction, swirl of stiff tongue. Pleasure in neon.
Explosion: starts on the inside, pushes outward in a rush of pure bliss. Waves; thrash of hips and legs. Shameless. Thoughtless. Possibly shouting. Sound vanishes into whiteness.
Wrapped in warmth and safety. Words come from my mouth unbidden. His name. Declarations. Remember: chemical alteration post orgasm. Rush of adoration overtakes me. Am limp and boneless. Cannot move again. Never move again. Try to think.
Remember. Oxytocin. Endogenous opioid peptides. Results in pair bonding in moles.
Don’t care. Feel his fingers laced in mine. Cannot let go (will not). His body against me, his thigh rests over mine. He kisses me, so lightly I barely feel it. Too weak to properly kiss him back.
He forgives me. Feel his chin against my forehead (stubble). Perfect.
“I love you too.” He whispers it into the top of my head.
Chapter 16: A Frightfully Dull Cliche
After dawn. 7am. Possibly as late as 7:20. Awake. (Why?) Mattress shifted; pressed down on the right. Woke me. Groggy. Want more sleep.
Warm, comfortable. Content. Someone sitting on the bed next to me. Hand on my chest.
(Recall: his hands on my pelvis, his naked hip resting against my thigh, his tongue (oh god). His lips. Fingers. His thumb. Falling asleep all tangled and soft, his heartbeat in my ear like music.
Waking up again, wee hours of the morning, disoriented, stretched out between his legs, his firmly renewed erection in my hand, rubbing his glans against my lips. Wet. Him half-asleep too, moaning, his hips bucking into me, no boundaries, no rules. Body takes what it wants, even in sleep. Months of masturbatory fantasies enacted in one night: his foreskin against my lips, guide him into my mouth, suppress gag reflex. His hand in my hair, his body thrumming with non-words and tension. Better than the fantasy. Mad with desire for him. He ejaculates in my mouth with a shout. He’s shaking afterward and I pull him into my chest, rub his back. He kisses me hard, his hand wraps around my penis, three rough strokes and lights are going off behind my eyes, pleasure fills me to my toes, a trail of fluid on his stomach. Words I don’t remember. Oblivion after that.)
Middle of the night; witching hour fumbling. Foggy. Details fade into an impressionist orgasmic haze. Pleasing debauchery. Bedroom smells like sex.
Mattress shifts again: lips press against mine. He smells like fresh soap, shampoo (mine): he took a shower. Open my eyes. Bleary. He comes into focus, sitting on the bed, staring at me: damp hair. He’s dressed. Coat on. He’s leaving. (Don’t leave, John.)
He curls his fingers behind my neck, his thumb strokes my cheekbone. (Don’t leave.)
Grunt in response. Too tired. Notice I have rolled my head slightly, leaning into the palm of his hand. Body reacts to him.
“I have to open the surgery. I’m the only one on this morning.”
How many people need to see a doctor on a Sunday morning shortly after the crack of dawn? Surely they can wait. Surely they can go to hell.
“Do you want...” a pause. (Why?) Bit of awkwardness. Daylight complicates things. Shut the curtains, keep it out. “Do you want to meet me for lunch? Or...dinner? Maybe?”
Dinner? No teary reunions in Clapton until at least late this evening, then. “Text me.” My voice is a blur of rumble and sleep.
“What are you up to today, then? Case?” He’s stalling. Mildly gratifying, but he’s still planning to leave. Has to. Sense of duty. Priorities. (Pay cheque.) The ill and elderly. The needy. Tamp down annoyance at all of them.
“Not yet.” Roll over, turn my back to him. Fetal position. Don’t want to watch him leave. “Tired.”
“Sleep then.” He kisses my shoulder blade, nuzzles his nose into my neck, sits back. Hesitates. He’s watching me. Runs his fingers through my hair. “I’ll text you.”
Hum in response. Feel the mattress shift and right itself as he stands.
The sound of his shoes against the floor; don’t want to watch him leave but I can hear it just as well. Shoes on the carpet. He stops, buttons his coat. The door opens and closes (lightly, it’s early, he doesn’t want to wake Mrs. Hudson, doesn’t want to disturb me). His shoes against the stairs, one by one, the slow descent. (No limp. Not a trace.) He stops halfway down, left foot slowly settles on the sixth stair. Slightly rustle of the fabric of his coat. Pause. (What’s he doing?) Is he changing his mind? Considering his options, thinking about coming back, pulling his coat off again, curling up in bed with me, cheek against the back of my neck? Kiss me there, I would roll over, kiss him back, rest my head against his chest to hear the pleasant and reassuring sound of his beating heart. Dopamine. Oxytocin. Serotonin. Vasopressin: creating the pathways to solidify this impossible pair bond. Making me silly with love. Biological basis for human attachment. I have become attached. (Don’t leave, John.)
Shoes against the stairs again. Left, right, faster now. He reaches the floor, the carpet there. His shoes across the tile. Not staying. (Disappointment; like falling off a cliff. Stomach drops.) Hear him open the front door.
A buzzing sound; my phone. Front door closes gently with a rattle of glass. He’s gone.
Take a deep breath, get up (briefly) to grab my phone out of my trouser pocket. Cold air. Strained muscles on the insides of my thighs. Crawl back into bed. (Bedclothes are a disaster.) Look at the screen. John (of course). Smile.
Already miss you horribly.
Stab of pleasure. Relief. Affection. Want. Grips my chest like a living thing lodged there.
Come back. SH
God I wish I could.
What to text back? Everything that’s actually true sounds like a biology text or a greeting card (one or the other). Lust, love and longing, individually or together, present a frightfully dull cliche. How pedestrian.
Wish you were here.
You contribute significantly to my raised seratonin levels.
I’m lost and miserable without you.
Fall asleep still thinking of what to text back.
The clatter of dishes. Awake. Kitten heels tapping across the kitchen floor. Mrs. Hudson. Nearly 10:30am. Late. Rub eyes. Stretch (thighs still sore; reminder. John.) Check phone. Six texts, all from John. Stroke the screen with my thumb.
Can’t stop thinking about you.
Should have done this ages ago, before things got so complicated.
Might not have been ready then, I guess.
Me, at least. Don’t know about you. What about you?
Had thought I could get away before lunch and sneak back, but looks like no. Booked up.
God I love you, you know that right. Christ.
John’s bald emotions etched in digital letters. Warmth, affection, lust/love blooms anew in the pit of my stomach. Overwhelming. His heart on display for me: so bright, like staring at the sun. Need to look away: too much. Save these, look at them later, short spurts, reminders. Love that he sends me these texts so unabashedly; hate that I don’t know how to respond.
Ache: want. His absence and my desire for him translates into nearly-physical pain. I am besotted. Should spend the day in a swoon across the sofa.
You’ve turned me into a Victorian heroine. SH
Fuzzy mouth: needs a toothbrush through it. Coffee. Bedclothes: activities that occurred here fairly obvious. Memory: John’s lean body half covered with the sheet, his head against the pillow. The smell of his skin. Shove feet into slippers. Do up dressing gown. Pull the sheets off the bed and dump them in the laundry hamper.
Phone buzzes again.
Have I? Are you having a swoon?
Fear I shall have to resort to one. SH
“Sherlock?” Mrs. Hudson, her kitten heels clapping against the tile, muffled as she crosses over onto the sitting room carpet. Bedroom door is half-open (did she look in already? Did she see me asleep there? Naked and debauched and completely spent?). Make sure dressing gown is tied; smooth back hair. Feet against the floor; sore thighs, the evidence of multiple ejaculations on my stomach, legs, chest (his; mine). I need a shower. Phone buzzes in my hand.
I need to see you tonight. Dinner? Angelo’s?
“Good morning, Mrs. Hudson.” I try to sound as pleasant as I can. I really am quite fond of her. She’s got two cups of tea in her hands, one for me, one for herself. She motions for me to sit down. I hesitate for a moment. Would really like a shower. And coffee.
“Good morning indeed.” She gives me a knowing look. A moment of surprise; how did she know? Catch myself: of course. She would have heard it. Voices carry. It wasn’t very late when John rid me of my clothes; she might have been standing on the stairs, or carrying a plate of biscuits past the door, as she does. Neither of us had much ability to control the volume. The walls are thin. And of course Mrs. Hudson would have been curious. Of course she would have heard. Obvious.
Amazing how easily I can forget that the rest of the world even exists once John’s lips are against mine. Moment of solipsistic arrogance to imagine that that slice of time belonged only to the two of us.
I make my decision and move toward my armchair (she takes John’s). She hands me my cup of tea. I take it. “I didn’t hear your young man leaving this morning, but he has, hasn’t he.” She winks at me. “I’m so glad to see you finally moving on after the last one.”
The last one. John. Oh.
“I couldn’t believe it when he up and married that woman.” She shakes her head sadly, lips pursed. “What a terrible thing. I really thought so much better of him. He seemed like such a nice young man.”
“Ah.” That seems a bit unfair.
“And here he’s been, mooning around after you all these months, as if it wouldn’t hurt you to have him hanging around. I very nearly told him off myself a few times.” She tsked in a matched set and shook her head. “Drink your tea, dear.”
The tea is blisteringly hot, and a bit sweeter than John usually makes it. It scalds my tongue.
Yes, dinner. Angelo’s. I’ll meet you there. SH
Fascinating crime scene. Staged; obscenely baroque. (Could spend days combing through all perfectly-laid out evidence. Exquisite.) Such fine attention to detail. Clearly all ties together as a narrative; unclear precisely what that narrative is (thus far). Will figure it out. Steeple fingers. Stare. Think. (Think, think.)
Phone vibrating against my hip. Ignore it. Think.
Two bodies. One (male, aged fifty-five to fifty-seven) seated in a decrepit lawn chair, wearing a (brand new) rugby helmet, cradling a severed foot coated in varnish (hands clean, post-mortem cut (less than a millimetre) just above the knuckle on the right index finger) wearing wedding rings on both hands, both clearly his own. One on the left hand at least ten but less than fifteen years older than the one on the right). The other body (female, aged thirty-six or thirty-seven) lying on the floor on a towel, wearing a floral bathing suit and sunglasses, her head resting on a plasticised human liver (not her own). She has a paperback book resting (open, pages down) on her stomach (Orlando). Fingers around a plastic cup filled with gin and (flat) tonic. Both bodies: fingernails trimmed after death. French manicure (hers). Hyper feminine. Her hair styled as though it’s 1964. The entire scene set in an industrial freezer.
The narrative: what is it? The murderer’s parents, staged using innocent bodies? A memory of some kind? Are these people players, actors? No. Evidence too closely tied to their lives. This is no play, no lie. Something else. Something true. How delicious.
On closer inspection: the male’s feet (covered in socks and a pair of ornamental wooden clogs) propped up on the last ten years of his own tax returns. (Is he Dutch? Returned from a Dutch holiday?) Legs shaved to three inches above his (right) ankle.
Think. What can this mean? What happened here? A true puzzle. Wonderful. A tease of a crime scene, baring all for its audience, so enticing that it’s hard to know where to look. Intoxicating. Look everywhere. Drink it in. Maddening (in the best way).
“Can we move them out of here now?” Lestrade is rubbing his hands together. Is it cold? Suppose it is. Well, it’s a freezer, what else did he expect?
“No.” Not even close to finished. Been at it for hours now (how many? not sure) and still finding new evidence. Missing something critical. All this evidence planted and staged to hide something else. Hiding in plain sight. Peer inside the woman’s ear. Something there. Tweezers. Careful, careful...a insect encased in amber. Tiny. Latvian. (Why?) A note tucked into her suit, between her breasts, a receipt folded eight times. Receipt for a buckwheat neck pillow. On it a single word, written in pencil: offal. More bewildering the more details I find. Fantastic.
“We can’t keep them here all night, the restaurant owner will have my head.” Lestrade again. Annoying. I don’t care about restaurant owners.
Files, details. The story of these people’s lives. Gareth Jones, originally from Wales (obviously). Flip though the papers. Inspect the body. A former rugby player, in his teens. Injury to his ankle that required surgery. Married twice, divorced twice. Cheats on his taxes. The evidence is telling his story. No lies. Only truth in the details. The murderer knew him well.
The woman: Chloe Taylor, from London. A chronic alcoholic with tickets to the Bahamas next week; a sunbathing holiday. (Credit card records, impulsive purchase: a form of reward. For what?) The novel: Orlando. Would it be too easy, too obvious, to guess that she was transgender? Secretly, perhaps, almost secretly. Female to male. (Nearly) impossible to deduce otherwise. No records, no true evidence. The contents of people’s deepest wishes and desires hard to always see painted on the body. (Whispered confessions over time, whispered to whom?) Too easy, maybe. Too perfect. Everything else about this crime scene is perfect, why not that?
Pull out phone. Blinking light: very low battery. Fourteen texts. Ignore them.
“Sherlock.” Lestrade again. Annoying. Ignore him, too. Served his purpose, anyway: documents on these two stacked beside my feet. Pored over them already. The two are unrelated. Probably never met. Did not live in the same neighbourhood, go to the same schools or work for the same company (him: a salesman, her: a teacher). They do not appear to had have anything in common at any point in their lives, aside from a few stretches of road and a roundabout. But not random: the murderer clearly knew them both. Well. So well he (she? for once I’m not convinced the murderer is male) has collected all this evidence of their lives to dress them after death. (How?) Cabbie? Travel agent? Therapist? Bus driver? Shopkeeper? Waitress? Barman? To whom does one tell everything? (Absolutely everything?)
Wait. Think. Pull off sandals, clogs, socks. Toe nails: pedicure. Heels: soft. Dead skin removed with a razor. Fingernails: perfect. Hair: cut post-mortem. Hairdresser? Ah. Hairdresser. Innocuous. Search. Map. Hair salons in the vicinity: his work, her home. Three obvious ones, relatively nearby. Battery about to go.
“Hairdresser.” Say it out loud so Lestrade can get to work on it. “One of these three salons.” Hand phone to him. “Battery is nearly dead.”
He looks at it. Nods. “Were you supposed to meet John somewhere?” Stop. What? “You’ve been ignoring his texts again, haven’t you?”
Grab the phone back. Texts. John. Oh no. What time is it? Half past ten. Beyond late for dinner. Missed dinner entirely. Stood John up. Why didn’t I text him? Could have invited him along. He might have enjoyed this rather whimsical tableau. Didn’t think of it. Didn’t think. Suddenly feel extremely cold. Stomach twists. Couldn’t eat anyway, on a case now. (Not the point.)
“Can we move them out of here now, then?” Lestrade. Buzzing like a bee in my ear.
Wave hand at him. “Yes, yes. Go ahead.” Leave the freezer, out in the warmth. Hadn’t realized how cold it was; can’t feel my feet. Fingers slow. Possibly a bit of frostbite on my earlobes. No matter.
“So why do you think it’s a hairdresser who did it, then?” Lestrade, blowing on his hands, wearing a much thicker coat than mine.
Ignore him. Texts. Fourteen. All from John? Yes. (Oh no.) Don’t want to read them. Have to read them. (What have I done?) Have to read them quickly; battery light is winking at me. Send one first.
Case. Double murder. Plasticised liver. Battery dying. Lost track of time. Sorry. SH
Not really sure what else to say.
Response almost instant.
I guessed. Another time.
Stare at it. Digital text. Conveys nothing. No tone of voice, no edge of reproach to be heard, parsed. Feel it anyway. John: annoyed? Angry? Disappointed? Frustrated? Probably. Thumb the text. Will vanish in a few minutes, no battery left. How should I feel? Relieved? John understands. He knows how I am. He knows that I’m effectively married to my work. I’ve said so before. This is fine. Changes nothing. Minor oversight. Not feeling relieved, though; feeling...what? Guilty? Sorry? Punch of regret in the gut? (Is that what that is?) Distress? Wobbly jot of fear? (Fear of what?) Hands a little shaky. Must be the cold. (What have I done?)
Take a breath. Read.
Can’t wait to see you. You’re all I can think about.
I wonder why you never said anything all this time. I thought I knew what you were thinking. Clearly I was wrong.
I suppose I should never imagine I can guess what you’re thinking. Mistake #1.
Patient sliced end of his finger off: “So...it will just grow back then?” Felt like I was in a Python sketch.
Where’d you go?
We’re still on for tonight, right?
Am leaving the surgery, where are you? Meeting me there?
Sherlock? Are you going to be late, or are you not coming at all?
I suppose I shouldn’t take this personally, but it’s hard when the waiters are giving me pitying looks.
Did Lestrade give you a particularly interesting case? If I ever needed demonstration that you are married to your work...
I hope you’re all right and not dead in a ditch somewhere, you bastard.
You could have just texted me, you know. At any time.
All right, I’m going home. You missed a lovely meal, but I suppose you wouldn’t have eaten anyway.
I suppose I’d hoped...well I’d hoped.
Screen goes dark. For the best. John back in Clapton by now, chest full of regret. On the surface of it: a communication failure. Expected. Surprise to no one. Business as usual. This isn’t even the first time. It’s only dinner. It’s nothing.
He’d hoped. He’d hoped what? That I wouldn’t behave this way? Foolish. (Isn’t it?) People don’t change. John knows that. Knows it better than anyone. Expects Mary to stop her infidelities even though they are wired into her id, expects me to put someone else (him) ahead of the work? Impossible. Want to feel outrage, want to tease out his fault in this. He’d hoped...he’d hoped what? Kiss me and I’ll become someone else? Can’t. Won’t. Impossible. The fantasy has grown out of control. Tried to pin it on me and it didn’t fit. Disappointment. (His. Mine. I wanted it to fit too.)
Not easy to find ways to blame him. Don’t shape evidence to suit the desired theory; I know better. My fault. Didn’t think. Got caught up. Enticed, distracted. Made arrangements, made promises. Failed to meet expectations. Not used to thinking about others. Relationships require a rewiring of the brain. My brain may be too set in its ways to be rewired. Wasn’t that the theory from the start? Justified. Proven correct. I’m no good at this.
It’s only dinner. There will be other mealtimes to share. (Have I broken something? Have I lost something?) It wasn’t about dinner. The dual nature of these conversations: asking for one thing but wanting another altogether. What? I’m meant to understand. What was John looking for?
What would I have been looking for? Evidence. Evidence of closeness, of care, of commitment. People (other than me) need to hear everything at least twice. Different circumstances. Evidence that what happened in the darkness (with me in the witching hour) has a corollary in the day. (Damn daylight.) Ground it in reality. Solidify it. Didn’t realize. Should have. Should have been at the top of my mind. (It was. It was, until...until the most beautiful circus of a case appeared in front of me. Lead me not into temptation.)
Didn’t have to be dinner. Could have been around that beautiful crime scene. Touch his hand, smile, share this most precious thing with him. Why didn’t I? (Deliberate?) Need a bloody useless therapist now. Not my area.
Taxi to Clapton. Don’t know why. Want to. Want to see him. Don’t want to be seen. Don’t want to talk. (No words. Nothing to say.) Going to the other crime scene, the one I created. Less beautiful, more painful. No varnish, no plasticised liver. No flat gin and tonic. Clapton, chicken shops, narrow flight of stairs and the door between him and me. Not going in.
Taxi stops and I get out, cross the street. Look up: the light is on in Mary’s flat. Bluish glow of the telly projected against the (builder’s beige) walls. Mary is watching her shows; John: sitting next to her? Holding her hand? Arm wrapped around her, her head against his shoulder? Pretending nothing has changed? (Maybe nothing has changed. Maybe my failure has reverted us back to the status quo. Maybe the status quo was never meant to change.)
The building across the street is open (broken lock; don’t even have to pick it). Up the stairs to a landing (smells like cabbage). Small, dirty window, broken marble sill. (Good enough.) Binoculars.
Domestic scene; John (oh, John) sitting on the sofa with Mary. Right leg held tight (he’s in pain). Mary facing away from the window, sitting diagonally on the sofa, two hands holding John’s (right) hand. Telly is on but neither of them is watching it. Sound is probably muted. They are talking. (Talking about what?) John looks upset. Sad. Rubs his hands across his eyes. Mary holds his hand to her chest. Touches her face (is she crying? Can’t picture Mary crying). John shakes his head, he’s talking. Can’t read his lips from here. Is he telling her everything? (Would he do that? Why would he do that?) She leans toward him, strokes his head with her (left) hand. Rests it on the back of his neck. He is still covering his eyes (hiding his expression from me).
She is comforting him. Not the reaction a wife would have to John’s confession. Is it? Mary is no ordinary wife. No idea what they’re talking about. Could be anything.
John and I have never had conversations like this. Wouldn’t know how to start one. Wouldn’t know how to conduct myself if one started. Vacant spot in my knowledge. Awkward conversations. They stop at “I consider myself married to my work.” Mary: clearly an expert on conversations. She is good at things at which I consistently fail. (She would not have failed to appear at dinner, no matter what temptations crossed her path. I understand now.)
John knew what he was doing, marrying Mary. He was building a support network for the pain I would inevitably cause him. For all her faults, she is better for him than I am. She leans forward and kisses him. He buries his face in her shoulder, and she holds him. She rocks him. She is made of comfort and I of thoughtlessness and indifference. (It was only dinner.)
I am cold and numb. My phone is dead. No texts, no apologies. Time to go home.
Chapter 18: The Question Underneath
John, kneeling next to the body (female: between sixty-two and sixty-three). Leg a problem again; he tucks it beneath him, as if he doesn’t trust it. (My fault.) Watch: careful hands on the body. Shifts (left) arm, tilts head. Pulls down on cheeks to see eyes. Gentle. Deliberate. Squared fingernails hidden under latex. Concentration on his face. Compassion. Compassion for this dead woman on the grass on a foggy afternoon. (Clearly posed.) Arms thrown above her head, legs at an odd angle. Calm face belies her frantic position. (A staged scene created by a person who has only ever seen a heart attack on telly.) Smells strongly of shampoo (artificial strawberry; dreadful) and soap (Sunlight). Hair, face, hands scrubbed overmuch. Some abrasion evident. Faint trace of oil (canola) remains in the hair, under fingernails. (Why?)
“Heart attack.” Anderson. (Idiot.)
“No, I don’t think so.” John doesn’t look up.
Quite right. Not a heart attack. Face, arms hair washed excessively after death: why? To hide the evidence of the oil. Drowned in oil? No. (John will confirm.)
“No?” Anderson: defiant. Arms crossed. Hates having a doctor at a crime scene; John always knows more than he does. Makes him feel inadequate. (He is.)
John catches my eye for a moment. Gives Anderson a withering look. Heart swells. (Oh I love you, John.)
“What, drowned in grass and sand?” He laughs. (Why is that funny?)
“No.” John strokes her cheek. “Petechial hemorrhages, here,” he points at her chin, “here”, across the bridge of her nose, “and here.” He drags down against her face and opens her eyes. Burst of red, webs of exploded capillaries. Looks up. “I guarantee you’ll find her heart enlarged. Asphyxiation.” Yes, but how? Why? Missing pieces.
“No ligature marks, no bruising, hyoid intact.” Anderson is still fighting his case. Dull. Distracting. “Heart attack could have the same effect.”
“No.” John shakes his head. “She wasn’t strangled, I grant you. But she failed to get sufficient oxygen for too long a period nonetheless.” He looks down at the body. Compassionate eyes. “I don’t think she even realized it was happening. She didn’t struggle at all.” He pats her shoulder, as if she were still alive. Comfort.
Didn’t struggle. Didn’t even realize? Oh. Of course. John. I love you.
Phone. Search. Canola.
Lottery winner. Husband.
Of course. Of course.
Murder. Over money. (So pedestrian.) Was she about to leave him? In the middle of a divorce? Maybe. Paperwork will tell. Motive clear, in any case.
Perfect. Missing pieces of the puzzle, delivered in situ. From his brain to my ear. How did I ever manage without him? (How would I ever manage without him?)
Turn to Lestrade, standing with his arms across his chest, forehead creased.
“George Simon,” show him the news story on my phone, a man beaming at a press conference, “Did not buy that winning EuroMillions lottery ticket.” (£56 million.)
Lestrade’s bewildered face. (I love this part.) “Go on, then.”
Look over at John. Anticipation. Slight smile. (Affection.)
“This,” point to the body, “Is Mrs. Simon. Her husband will identify her, will claim she’s been missing for days. He’ll be lying, though. He killed her last night. Mrs. Simon purchased that lottery ticket yesterday.”
Kneel down beside John: thigh brushes against his hip. Shiver slightly. John. (Don’t get distracted. Not yet.) Reach in: grab receipt. Lottery ticket receipt. Crumpled. (Didn’t make the connection until John. Burst of warmth in my chest.) Uncrumple it. Hand it to Lestrade. He looks at it, waits. Listens.
“Her husband claimed the prize this afternoon.” Flash my phone. News story. They can look it up. “Mr. Simon is a lorry driver for an oil company in Tottenham. Were you aware, Anderson,” stand, swirl around to face him, “that cooking oil tanks are maintained in an inert state, minus any oxygen, in order to preserve the oil?”
He stares. Arms across his chest. Smirk. (Triumph.)
“Mr. Simon pushed his wife into an inert tank. She died within minutes, not knowing the the air she breathed had no oxygen in it. There was a remaining bit of oil in the bottom of the tank, which she fell onto, obviously. Covered her face, her arms, her hair. Hence the strong smell of shampoo and soap,” shift the head slightly, touch an oily patch of hair at her left temple, “which failed to entirely remove the canola oil from Mrs. Simon.”
“Ah.” John, sitting back on his heels. “Pure oxygen deficiency. That explains it.” He looks at me. His expressive face. I can always read his emotions in his eyes, in the way he holds his mouth. (Can I? Always? Really? I always think I can. I may be wrong more often than I’d like to presume. There’s always something I miss.) Face full of awe, admiration, faint surprise. Affection. (Want.)
“Extraordinary.” He means it. He always means it. John doesn’t say things he doesn’t mean.
He still says them out loud, words like that, after all this time. Extraordinary. Amazing. Fantastic. Can’t help but smile at him. He smiles back. Feel my teeth press into my bottom lip (remembering his teeth on my bottom lip, his hip under my hand, the small of his back, the sound of his wordless encouragements).
“So the husband did it, then?” Lestrade. Snap head around. Almost forgot he was there. (Too easily distracted.) Sally standing next to him, staring at her phone.
“Clearly. You’ll find canola oil under her fingernails and in her hair, and as John indicated, evidence of oxygen deficiency without struggle or obstructed airway with a simple autopsy.” Glance around the park. “Probably more than one witness of a man driving a,” look down at the remains of the tyre marks in a bit of mud, “Ford Focus into the park late at night.”
“EuroMillions will not like this.” Sally shakes her head.
Lestrade drops the receipt into an evidence bag. Motions for the rest of his team to return to the body as he walks out toward his car. Follow. He’s bound to miss something else. (The receipt, fingerprints; I have a theory).
Wait. Stop. Turn. John.
Still on his knees, trying to ease himself back onto his feet without his cane. (Someone’s kicked it out of his reach. Probably Anderson.) He pulls the gloves off and leaves them next to the body. Lestrade can wait. Only details now. He can work it out.
“John.” Move closer, reach out my hand to him. He looks up at me, surprised. (Am I regularly so thoughtless as to leave him like this? I suppose I am.) He takes my hand. Help him up. Wrap my arm around his waist (support). Hand slips under the bottom edge of his jacket. Rub his hip. His breath speeds up a little (so does mine). Intimate contact. Daylight. (Dangerous.)
“That was amazing.” His voice: deliberately steady. Leg: any better? Hard to tell. He’s leaning into me. I hook my thumb under his belt. Feel his skin. Warm. “You got all that from a patch of oily hair?”
“And your diagnosis.” Overwhelmed by the urge to kiss him, but it feels inappropriate. In public. In the daylight. Uncertain. (He’s married.) “It was...perfect.” My voice is not quite as steady as his.
(Left) hand never leaves the hot skin of the small of his back on the way to Baker Street. (Taxi smells faintly of a former passenger’s cologne.) Tips of my fingers under the waistband of his jeans; leather of his belt digs into my knuckles. Brush of friction between us with each corner, gear shift, every slight bump in the road. His (right) hand rests on my thigh, his fingers on the inside seam of my trousers. Tracing that seam with a fluid and small motion I can feel through to my bones. Been less than a week. (What about Mary?) Don’t want to ask. No point asking. Don’t care. (Curious. What did he tell her? What did she say?) Doesn’t matter.
Arousal like a switch; from rational to irrational in a moment. He licks his lips. Trap tongue behind my teeth. (Daylight, decorum, CCTV, hesitance: My enemies.)
John doesn’t need my help up the stairs. (Left his cane in the taxi.) Leads me; holding only my index and middle fingers cradled in the palm of his (left) hand. Light touch. Brings me inside the flat; shuts the door behind me. He wraps his hand around the back of my neck and kisses me. Hot. Wet. Slight taste of coffee. John. Familiar texture of his tongue. The edge of his voice lingers in a hum in the back of his throat.
The world goes dark. (My eyes have closed. Why?) Something about the consistency of this particular pleasure pulls my eyes shut. Evolutionary advantage? Perhaps. Block out the unpleasant truths: the prior commitments, the time on the clock, the complications, the failures. Daylight. Question marks my rational mind has placed in front of him. Now: reduced to nerve endings and an elevated pain threshold, rush of endorphins and an addiction to him.
John: insistent. Lips and tongues (teeth) use a language of their own. Constantly saying more, more, more. Not only him: also me. Demanding. Giving in to unadulterated want. Mine (on full display in the slight tremor in my limbs, my wordless begging, my eager mouth) appears to heighten his (his limber tongue, his erection obvious against my upper thigh, his hands buried in my hair, pulling me into him). His desire heightens mine. Delicious cycle.
Pull off his jacket, slide my hands up under his shirt. Press my palms against the curve of his back. Push all memory of Mary out of his bones. All memory of the past, my mistakes. (My arrogance, ignorance, thoughtlessness.) My uncertainty, my distraction.
(Feel his teeth against my tongue.) Want. Demand. Take. His breathing is full of his voice. Cannot be silent.
Too many barriers.
Undo his belt, button, zip: tangle one hand into his hair, push the other down the front of his jeans. Wrap my fingers around his penis (hot, hard, damp in the palm of my hand). He moans in my mouth, breaks free of my lips to gulp air. The sound of him panting forces open my eyes (I want to see).
His eyes: shut. Mouth open. Face flushed. Moans with every shift of my fingers, twist, squeeze. He swears under his breath and I kiss the corner of his mouth, nuzzle against his cheek with my nose. Says my name, repeats it. Pressure of his hip against my groin provides insufficient friction, but I don’t care.
Watch John’s (expressive) face. So expressive I can almost feel everything he feels, it’s so obvious; he wants my fingers firm and rough, fast; he licks his lips and moans. I give him what he wants. More.
Suck on his earlobe. Tug on his hair (he swears again). Press my teeth into his jaw and he tenses, groans, ejaculates onto my hip, my fingers. Eyes shut, legs tremble a little. Don’t want to let him go.
Takes a breath; then another. Wet eyelashes. Slides his hand along my stomach and to my chest, and the pressure in my groin is too much. I am burning along the edges, like a cracker about to burst into flame.
I unzip my trousers, grab hold of my penis and tug hard (his semen on my fingers). The pad of John’s index finger presses a circle against my nipple. Such a tiny motion, his finger. His finger, my erectile tissue(s). His (left) hand slides down my back, rubs hard against my bottom. Squeezes. Breathy moan (from me). He kisses me and the world goes dark again, pleasure surges through me. Strangled cry (mine). Head falls back. Climax.
His hand against mine. His lips on my throat. His eyelashes flutter against my neck. Ragged breath (his. mine). My kneecaps are shaking. Bliss rolls in waves down my limbs. He kisses me lightly on the mouth, fingers against my neck shift upward and stroke my hair. Every motion, every touch: perfect.
He chuckles against my ear. “Sometimes,” he holds my softening penis in his hand and maneuvers it gently back into my pants. Fingers grasp my zip. “It can actually last longer than that.” He zips up my trousers and kisses my lips again. “Believe it or not.”
He fumbles with the zip of his jeans, his shoulder still against me. My left hand cradled on his shoulder.
“I’ll await evidence.”
We get takeaway (Chinese). He watches the telly, pokes at his blog. I rest my head on a pillow on his lap, reading Forensic Science International (“Forensic implications of respiratory derived blood spatter distributions,” D Denison, A Porter, M Mills.). He plays with my hair, rests his hand against my hip, my knee. The sun is going down. Transition periods. From one state to another. From day to night, from tension to calm. Dim red light of sunset to the darkness. A state of grace. Respite.
Runs his fingers through my hair. Feels deliriously good. Sends tingles down my spine. Shut my eyes, rest journal open against my chest.
“You confuse me.” He says it softly and with such tenderness I don’t notice the meaning of the words at first. (His fingers through my hair. Distracting.)
“Do I?” Of course I do. Not a surprise, I suppose.
Smile at that. Keep my eyes shut. He shifts his legs, feet up on the coffee table. Reach up and tuck my hand under his knee.
“I have to ask you.”
“Yes?” A pause. Shift my index finger back and forth against him. Denim warmed by his body heat.
“You don’t need to answer right now, you should think about it.” He shifts. Uncomfortable. (Why?) Hard exhale. (What?) “Yeah, don’t answer me now. Think on it.”
His fingers still in my hair. Distracting. Lulling me. Wait. Eyes shut.
“I want to know...I need to know...” more trailing sentences. What do you need to know, John? Is there anything left you don’t already know? “I need to know what you want.” What I want? Right now? That’s simple. His fingers in my hair. This sense of ease (quickly dissipating). Promise of the night together (him on the left side of my bed, me on the right, his body mine to explore). For him to stay the following morning, sit across from me at the table (coffee, toast, jam). Beyond simple. “From me. What you want from me.”
A larger question. What do I want from John? His time. His affection (physical and otherwise). His (undivided) attention. What’s the question underneath the spoken one? (These entanglements: so fraught with conflicting evidence and convolutions. Meanings twisted inside other meanings. Simple questions that hide more complicated ones. So many ways to misstep. What’s the right answer? (What does he want from me? Right now? What do I have left to confess?)
Will do what he asks. Demonstration of my willingness. My understanding of the emotional Penrose stairs on which I stand.
“I’ll think on it.” Rub the back of his knee. He sighs. Starts poking at his blog again. Open my eyes. Tension on his face (did I answer incorrectly?). He sees me looking at him. Smiles. Pets my hair again. (Absurdly blissful.)
Read the rest of my article with my eyes half-crossed. Barely absorbed 80% of it. May need to reread it. Later.
The show on the telly ends. His hands still in my hair. “I should go.” He sounds strangely defeated. (Why?)
(Don’t leave, John.) Sit up. Face him.
“John.” His face: deliberately neutral. He’s hiding something from me. (Why? What have I done?) “I will think on your question, as you asked me to. But I certainly...” am I picking up his tendency to let sentences peter out unnecessarily? “I’d like it very much if you’d stay.” (Don’t leave.)
Chapter 19: Equilibrium
Unfamiliar little bistro. Tiny chairs that belong outdoors. Tiny tables; forced intimacy. Elbows at awkward angles. Fork and knife don't match. Feel as though shoved back to the children's table, punished for some dire misdeed. Quiche (asparagus and swiss cheese: appalling) and salad (soggy). Twee, monstrously large cups of over-sweetened coffee (with foam).
Had to accept the invitation. Too curious not to. (Does John know about this little rendezvous? Unlikely.)
Mary's legs crossed at the ankles; prim tweed skirt, silk blouse (second-hand). String of pearls (tasteful: gift from John). Dressing the part of the librarian stereotype; neckline slightly (deliberately) too low. Granted a view of the band of her bra (indigo blue, near-perfect match for her blue high-heeled shoes), as well as the rounded flesh of her cinched breasts each time she dips her head down to sip at her coffee. (Deliberate? No doubt.) Attempt to appeal to my baser instincts. (My baser instincts do not tend in that direction.)
Attempt to seduce me? Could that possibly be true? Uncertain. Wait. Collect further evidence.
She is anxious (or is she miming anxiety for my benefit?). Tapping her finger against her cup; shake of her (right) knee. Face: unreadable. Open, friendly. Tiniest tells filtering through her tight control. Why? (She knows.) Of course she knows.
She kissed the air beside both my cheeks when I arrived, fingers hard against my arm. (Strange social conventions). Asked after my "consulting business" and, terrifyingly, my "brother, the one in government?"
Never been good at small talk. Boring. Tedious. Pointless. Answered as honestly (briskly) as possible. A wry, "it keeps me busy," and, in reference to Mycroft (has he poked his nose into John's business even further than I'd expected? Apparently so), "I have no idea, I couldn't care any less if I tried."
I do not ask her about her job, about James Carstairs, about her book club, her volunteering, her night shifts. I do not ask about the new name that appeared on a stub of paper shoved into my hand by one of my homeless network. Mark Johnson. Solicitor, divorced, history of alcoholism. (She removes her wedding ring when she sees him.)
She uncrosses her ankles and presses her knees together tightly. Controlled expression on her face. Can smell her (cheap) hairspray from here.
"You hurt him, you know that." She smiles, like that isn't a terrible thing to say. Do I hurt him? How do I hurt him? Leaving him waiting for me in restaurants, at crime scenes? Yes. I have done those things. He has forgiven me dozens of times, though I suppose that doesn't blot out the truth. Yes. I have hurt him. I do hurt him. (People hurt each other. It's what people do.)
It isn't as if he hasn't also hurt me. (He left me for her. For Mary. Before I had a chance. Before I knew anything. Before I could learn. Before there was sufficient evidence.) You hurt him, you know that. I suppose I do. However.
"So do you." Retort. Bit childish of me, but not untrue. She hurts him more than I do, surely. I've seen it on his face. She indulges her desire to flirt with, seduce, control, and manipulate men other than John (also, presumably, John). Always will. She lies (obscures the truth).
She purses her lips. Wrong answer, clearly. Unimpressed. (Possibly embarrassed?) Argument; counter-argument. Can't entirely tell what people are thinking at the best of times, but can usually make a decent guess. Can't guess with Mary. Never certain. Don't know what's a deliberate cover and what's a tell. Her constant and insidious congeniality.
"Not like this." She pierces a piece of lettuce with her fork and brings it to her lips. "I know you're not one for…" She pauses. Considers her lettuce. "Well, for sensitivity, but you should be more careful. If you don't want him to die of a broken heart." Sticks her fork in her mouth. Lets me chew on that statement.
Broken heart? (Recall: the sound of his heart beating under my ear. Not broken. Whole. Whole and pushing blood through his body, the heat of him rising up into my skin.)
Why would his heart be breaking? Have I not made myself exceptionally plain? Does he not have a wife (poor one though she may be) and a lover (me) to fill his heart to the brim? An embarrassment of riches by any assessment. Is he not loved devotedly on all sides? In what ways have I been anything other than careful?
"It's fine if you want to keep sleeping with him." (Talks with her mouth full.) She knows. (Does she? A ruse? No. She knows.) Guessed she probably did. Doesn't seem to mind in the slightest. How can that be? Read her face: impossible. Studied blankness. Pleasant, easy, calm. Unreal. She's blocked herself behind a wall of good-naturedness. But she shows no signs of distress. Or even surprise. (Only a slight and growing anxiety, eating away at the edges of her pleasantries.)
John and Mary have their own negotiated rules (clearly). What might they be?
Mary: allowed to pursue her open secrets? (Really, John?) Quiet acceptance that fidelity is something Mary cannot achieve? (What about the compulsive lying?) A mystery.
John: John is allowed an exception. Me. In every available way. (Could that be true?)
What I know, definitively: John is attracted to me (intellectually, physically). John is in love with me. (He loves me.) Mary: attracted to emotionally compromised men. They believed I was asexual. (Admitted that much.)
She must have always known that John loved me. From the moment they met. They imagined me untouchable. A safe place for John’s (very specific) needs. Thought I was unlikely or unwilling to demand (or accept) his body, his affection, his love. (John had his doubts. Imagine the conversations: Mary must have tried to convinced him. Not shy, or inexperienced, or uncertain. Not waiting, gathering evidence, weighing the options. Asexual. Mary’s interpretation became John’s to prove or disprove. Which he did. Well done, John.)
She accepted it, a third person in their arrangement (me), like the constantly-rotating third person she is always in the act of secretly introducing. A (welcome) potential threat. A draw on John's time and energy. A physical compromise (John sharing space with me, with her, with me again.) Why would she accept it? The demands of her own unique psychology (a string of secret lovers, the need to compete for John); the demands of his (me, only me).
Is this true? Does the evidence support such a thesis? It all slots into place: when I text him, he texts back. When I ask for his presence, he appears. If I kiss him, he kisses me back. When he is naked and pressed against me there is no guilt in him. I am an exception. I ask him to stay and he stays. (John: are you already mine?)
"Not that you're looking to me for permission, of course." Mary. She laughs. Why is that funny? Is that meant to be a joke (again)? She already knows her permission isn't required. Already given. (What a bizarre set of circumstances.) "But right now you're confusing the hell out of him."
"Am I?" Like standing on shifting sand. The truth is not as clear as I had expected. Nor is it as simple. In some ways perhaps more simple than I realised. (John: what whirlwind have you sucked us into?)
She laughs again. Short. "Obviously." Leans over her coffee again. (Indigo.)
"Can't imagine why." Only thing to do: dig for information. For evidence.
Mary exhales."He's a romantic at heart, you know."
"I don't, really."
"Of course you do, what do you think his texts were about?" She's seen his texts? To me? Declarations, disappointment? (Did she also see my responses?)
Does she imagine that John has feelings for me that are not reciprocated? My outward expressions: look at them without knowing (me). A cane: not the thoughtful gift I imagined it was? Perhaps in Mary's mind, a sort of joke instead, mockery (much like her own)? The texts: terse? Look at my phone. Scroll. Mary sits back, smug. Thinks I'm reviewing John's texts. Reviewing my own. He tells me he loves me; I make a joke. I stand him up. View it as evidence: how would I parse this, minus the relevant information? From the perspective of someone who imagines me emotionless, it looks different. Yes. I see it. Her argument. Her evidence. Her (false) deductions.
John: What do you want from me?
Is the question based on the conversations between him and Mary, John wondering whether I am in love with him (I am, oh I am, John, you're right) and Mary telling him I'm obviously not? Offering up these bits of digital (and otherwise) evidence, pointing out my flaws as signs?
Insufficient knowledge leads to erroneous assumptions.
"You see?" Her arms crossed in front of her.
"I see." I do see, but not what she's attempting to demonstrate. "What would you have me do?"
"Tell him the truth," she shrugs. "If you want to keep sleeping with him, it's fine with me. I prefer it, actually. But tell him you don't want," she pauses. What don't I want, Mary? "to be romantically attached. You don't want him coming home to you every night looking for a cuddle, do you." She rolls her eyes. As if this is an outrageous presumption. A strange weakness of John's that I would find (what?) unthinkable.
John. Coming home to me, looking for comfort in me rather than her. Wouldn't I want that? (I prefer it, actually.)
Surge of excitement. Delight. Can barely contain it. Have been avoiding considering this for fear of the inevitable agony it would cause. What if John left Mary, came back, was mine?
Granted: John's skin (lips, tongue, teeth, hands, pelvis, hips, to say nothing of other parts of his body) are intensely distracting. If he were mine (entirely mine) and not Mary's, if he turned to me for affection instead of her, would it become problematic? Potentially. Cases require my complete attention. Would I be able to give it?
Possibly I would get used to him. The distraction might lessen over time. Or I would learn to cope. Learn to keep the streams of ideas, data, deduction from crossing with the extreme pleasure of John's touch (touching John). A challenge. John’s presence has resulted in my view of the world expanding rather than shrinking. Evidence discovered that I would have missed without him. Yes. I can manage the distraction. He understands when I can’t. He helps. Yes. (A problem I would be more than happy to manage.)
Mary’s tone is sarcastic, unsympathetic. (She must truly imagine me to be a sociopath. So many people do. So many people, but never John.) "You don't want to rub his shoulders every evening and ask him about his day, now do you?" Do I not?
I've never asked John about his day. Assumed he would tell me if he wanted to. If it were interesting enough to share. (Expressing interest in the lives of others: a form of affectionate display. More than merely asking for information. Means of displaying care. A useful revelation.)
She laughs again. (Nervous. Does she suspect that she's wrong? Is she reading my face, seeing something there that causes doubt? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Uncertain.) "He's got confused. He imagines you might be willing. That’s...a temptation for him, you understand."
"Bit of a...longstanding fantasy of his. You must have guessed that by now, with that big brain of yours. You shouldn't hold his fantasies against him, though." An indulgent smile. (After all this, after all the compromises and mistakes, she loves him. Wants him to be happy. Wants him to get what he wants. Doesn’t think he can with me. Thinks I’m only going to hurt him, confuse him, break his heart. She’s trying to protect him, along with herself.)
I knew there was a fantasy. Thought he wanted to keep it that way.Thought he'd made his choice. Didn't have sufficient evidence otherwise. Data. But there is (apparently) still time. Time to turn it all back, go back to the roof, answer the question he asked me (I didn't realise it was a question). You wouldn’t like it. You would loathe it. Didn't know better. Didn’t know the truth: I don’t loathe it, him being in love with me. I crave it. Like he craves putting his life in danger, the feeling of a gun aimed in his direction. I may develop a psychosomatic disorder myself without him. His order begs for chaos (me); my chaos begs for order (him). Symmetry.
"Fantasy is fine, of course. More than fine. We're always wanting what we can't have, that's the human condition, isn't it." Her forgiveness is extreme; of course it is. He has to forgive her in equal measure. She allows him his fantasy in partial reality (a life with me, being in love with me, me being in love with him, minus any back rubs or home comforts he saves for her) in order to make him happy, make him happy enough to stay inside a compromised relationship. She fills in where I fail him. She requires that I fail in those precise ways. A tightrope. Any gust of wind will throw them over. (I am a gust of wind.)
“The only human conditions of which I am aware are those of being alive or dead. The rest is a question mark.”
"I'm just…" Under the table, her knee bounces. Anxious. There is relief on her face. She sees that I understand. I do. "I want to get back to the status quo." She rubs her temple. “He’s confused, things are...not as they should be. We need to settle this.”
John's romantic notions (about me). His doubts. Seeping into his marriage. (Doubtless. How could it not?)
He’s drawn a line in the sand. (No wonder she invited me to this surreptitious meeting; she needs to influence how I proceed. She can no longer influence John sufficiently. She needs me to go on being a failure. To abandon John in my way, the way she abandons him in hers. Equilibrium.)
He’s not sleeping with her. Won’t. Of course he won’t. Holding pattern. He’s waiting for my answer. So is Mary. Linchpin (me). In stasis until these relationships are clear and defined, put back in order.
I am, once again, causing chaos, kicking the hospital corners of his life into disarray. And he’s leaning into that disarray, craving it. Seeking it out. Crawling into bed with it and making love to it (to me).
What do you want from me?
“I’ll talk to him.” I will. Absolutely will. Don’t know what the words are yet. Will have to find them.
Compose a text to John.
I’m your chaos. You’re my order. I need you. SH
Press send. Press phone into my hand, screen down against my thigh. Wait.
“Great!” Mary looks happy. She finishes her coffee, leans back in her (tiny) chair. She’s misunderstood me (always has). Don’t know how to correct her. Not here. What words? “I knew you’d understand. John’s been...distracted lately. Since you two started up. I’ve been worried. I thought it was beyond time for us to have a little chat.”
“Of course.” Phone vibrates against my leg. Stab of fear (why?). John. Look at the screen.
Where are you? At a crime scene? You need me to come? Or are you asking me to do your laundry?
Smile at the phone. John. Look up at Mary. “You should know.” Her eyebrow quirks. “About Mark Johnson.”
She blanches. Her hands (loose on the table) tighten. She moves them into her lap as fists. She hasn’t told John about Mark Johnson yet; he’s new. Very new. The one she found the moment John told her about me, about sleeping with me. Mark Johnson: her revenge, her tit for tat. Attempt at equilibrium. (This marriage is an ugly thing, for all its compromises and admitted affection.) Her highly controlled face contorts. (Fear, shame, anger, embarrassment, outrage, regret.) It rights itself after a moment. She takes a breath. Smiles. Says nothing.
“He has genital herpes.”
She blinks. Stares.
“I found Acyclovir packaging in his bins.” Clear evidence. Multiple packages. He hasn’t had shingles recently. Obvious. Herpes (genital most likely). Probably no active lesions at present, or Mary would have noticed. Unlikely that he would start a new relationship in the midst of an outbreak. But one never knows.
She covers her mouth with her hand. Eyes wide. (What?)
“You should see your doctor. Get tested.” Stand. “Just to be safe. “ Pull on my coat. Bit of a chill in the wind this afternoon. Feels like a whole new day is dawning. John. “Thank you for lunch.” Smile. “This has been most enlightening.”
Chapter 20: Designed for Poetry, not Accuracy
She’s wrong, you know that. SH
Too many people in the street. All walking too slowly. Dodge them. Run. Burst of energy like a cocaine high combined with one too many nicotine patches and a cup of coffee. Zigzag through side streets. Adrenaline (like chasing a serial killer) making my heart beat too quickly. Euphoria (endorphin induced? Or merely circumstantial? Hard to tell. Both. Don’t care). On the edge of something (toppling over it). Up to the main road. Catch glimpse of myself in a shop window: weird smile plastered across my face. Stare. Barely recognise myself. See motion from the corner of my eye. CCTV camera. Swivelling to focus on me. Mycroft. Flip off the camera. Can’t pull the smile off my face. Don’t want to. Nothing else matters. Have to get to John.
Hail a taxi. Breathing hard. Check phone. No response. (Strange.)
You know she’s wrong, don’t you? Certain you do. You know me. SH
Give the address of John’s surgery. Lean back, stare outside. Bit of rain from the morning petering out. Clouds part and the sun comes out: startlingly bright. Feel jittery. Feel late. (Over a year late.) No idea what I’m going to say when I get there. Phone buzzes. Burst of anticipation in my stomach; sharp shards of it extend out into my chest, down my arms. Check phone. Text. From Mycroft. (Punch of disappointment.) Ignore it. Compose new text to John instead. (Why isn’t he answering me?)
Wasn’t ready. Haven’t been ready. Ready now. Think I’m ready now. Want to be. SH
Jittery feeling underneath my skin. Tap the bridge of my nose repeatedly (if only that would make the taxi go faster). Damn traffic. Check phone. Check again. John? (What am I going to say?)
Phone vibrates in my hand. Look at the screen. Mycroft again. (Damn him.) Read his (bloody) messages out of sheer frustration.
Well aren’t you chipper this afternoon. Have a nice lunch with Mary? Such a lovely woman.
With all that extra energy, perhaps you can help me with some legwork that needs doing. For Queen & country.
Respond: text filled with profanities. Press send. Response almost instant. (Had his response written before I sent mine, of course. Probably dictated it to his assistant. Knew exactly what I would say.) Bastard.
Wouldn’t Mummy have been proud, such creative use of language. Will drop by this afternoon with details.
Growl in frustration. Doesn’t matter. Ignore him. Not going home anyway. Must see John. Watch London slide by the window. Grip phone. (Will John to respond to me. Agony.) Vibrates. Check screen. John. Pleasure centre of my brain pitches and tilts, working in overdrive. Can feel it all the way to my fingertips. John. (Mummy would, indeed, have been proud.)
Where are you? Who are you talking about? You all right?
Must make no sense to him at all. Not enough words in the world. (What will I say?)
Am fine! Better than fine. On my way to the surgery. Will explain. SH
Pause. Consider. Decision: yes. Of course. (Have to.)
I love you. SH
Odd rush of panic on pressing send. Why? No reason. Not even news. And yet, and yet. Uncomfortable: extreme vulnerability. (Is this what it’s like?) Open like a flayed rodent pinned to a dissecting tray. Hard muscle of the heart on display. (Always thought it was such a trite association, the heart with love. Love is a psychological and physiological phenomenon, made of synapses and hormones, endorphins and dopamine receptors, pheromones, experiences, commonalities, mutual attraction. Not the muscle of the heart. Inexact metaphor. Designed for poetry, not accuracy.)
Feel it there all the same. Clutch of it in my chest. As though it (a feeling, a mere feeling) is lodged there, pressed against my upper lung. Leaning against my trachea so that I feel it with every breath. Like a physical thing that could be removed, examined. Displayed. (Could it?)
Could do a series of blood tests, though. Perhaps John will lend me a syringe, draw my blood for me. Could spend the afternoon in the kitchen, waiting for him to finish his shift, teasing out my absolute love for him from my own blood. Scientific proof. I could take the results and mount them on the wall. Then there would be no more confusion. I could just point to it and all would be understood.
Phone. Text. John.
I love you too. What the hell happened? Did you get shot or something?
Taxi stops. Pay the driver (slightly too much). Leap out. Stride into the surgery. John. (What am I going to say?) Walk past the receptionist, who stands up behind her desk, looks annoyed. Says something (inconsequential). John’s office door: shut. Open it.
He’s sitting in a wide beam of the afternoon sunshine from the window behind him. His hair: strands caught in the light make it look as though he has a halo around his head. (Bits of grey at his temples, through his fringe: different texture, different feel. Reacts differently.) His hands on a file, golden in the light. His face in shadow. Sun in my eyes. John.
“Sherlock!” He stands. “Are you all right?” Rushes over to me. Pats me down. Checks me for injuries. I’m struck dumb. His face. His eyes. His hands (against my chest, my stomach, down my arms). John. “One moment, I’m so sorry,” he says over his shoulder. “I”ll be right with you.” A woman sitting there. In her mid-sixties. Cane in her hand. (Have misplaced John’s cane. Will find it.) She looks exhausted. Hasn’t slept properly in months. Both of them looking at me, befuddled.
Oh. I’ve interrupted. Forgot there would be patients.
“Sherlock?” John’s voice low. “What the hell is going on?”
“He just barged right in!” Distraught receptionist at the door.
“Yes, I know, Daisy.” John sounds defeated. “He’s...” another pause. “He’s a friend. It’s all right.”
“It’s not all right for Mrs Clarke, is it.” Outrage. Daisy does outrage extraordinarily well. She must spend all day practising.
“Oh, I’m fine.” Mrs Clarke: broken voice of an older woman. She has a severely deviated septum. Probably the cause of her sleep apnea. She’s looking at me with curiosity. Probably thinks I’m some medical colleague.
“You have a severely deviated septum.” Fairly obvious. Sound of her voice, her lack of sleep. Only able to breathe out of one nostril. Keeps touching the other one. Daisy makes tsk and huff sounds and flounces back to the reception area. John sighs.
Mrs Clarke is startled. John looks me up and down. Glances back at Mrs Clarke. Sighs again. Resigned face. “You’re all right then?” Soft voice. Concerned. I worried him. He’s confused by my emotional outpouring. Apparently I’m not getting it quite right. “Not injured?”
“No, not at all. I just needed to talk to you.”
“My great-aunt had a deviated septum.” Mrs Clarke: relief on her face. “She had one little surgery and then she slept like a baby ever after.”
“That’s exactly what John’s going to recommend.” Using my most reassuring voice. “You’re going to be fine.” I’ve learned a bit about this caring lark. I could have a bedside manner.
John sighs. “This can’t wait until tonight?” He’s lowered his voice. Have I embarrassed him?
“Of course not.” Suppose it could. Still not quite sure what to say.
“You’re probably right about the deviated septum.”
Smile. “Of course I am.”
“Mrs Clarke, do you mind? Two minutes?”
“No no, of course not, take your time.” She settles back in her chair, pulls a novel (The Intimate Adventures of a London Call Girl) out of her bag. Settles in and opens it. (Dog-eared pages.)
He takes my hand, leads me in behind his desk and into a little storeroom beyond. Shelves of drug samples and boxes of latex gloves, pap smear kits and vaccinations. Half-closes the door.
“What is it?” He looks perplexed.
“I...” Wait. Think. “You said to me once, you thought I would hate it. Loathe it. This...process. You remember.”
John raises an eyebrow.
“You were wrong. I was wrong. Mary is definitely wrong.”
Look of alarm on his face. “You were talking to Mary?”
“We had lunch.”
“Oh god.” John rubs his forehead with the palm of his hand.
Lean forward. Kiss him. Aiming for his lips but end up only partially there; partly his cheek. (He moved.) His body tenses with surprise, then relaxes. He shifts and he kisses me, hand landing on the back of my neck. Warm. His tongue. (Earl Grey tea.) Lips on mine. My heart is speeding up. He pulls back. Looks at me. Kisses me again (lightly, on the lips).
“I think I understand.” He looks so serious. (Does he understand?)
“I want to answer your question.”
“Right.” He glances back toward Mrs Clarke. “Not now, though.” He smiles. It’s a big, broad smile. He does understand. “I appreciate the urgency, I do. But I have to get through these patients before six.”
“I love you.” Pinned to a dissection tray again. All raw with open wounds. Soft underbelly exposed. Jugular his for the slashing.
He smiles again. His eyes full of certainty. “I love you too.” Kisses me again. Lightly. Hand on my neck, slides down, his thumb caresses my clavicle. Makes up for the exposure, makes the exposure feel right. Good, even. (Oxytocin. Serotonin. Dopamine. Endorphins. Even pain would feel good right now. My nerve endings are all tingling. A chemical soup. Will he draw some blood? Perhaps not right now.)
He picks up a thin torch and a nasal speculum. “I need to confirm your diagnosis. We can talk more tonight.”
“Yes.” Not sure what to say. “Yes, all right.”
The door from the stairs into the sitting room: slightly ajar. Mycroft’s way of making sure I know he’s here. Should turn around and leave. Make him wait until the flat goes dark, until he’s wasted the entire afternoon. Not prepared to take on one of his inane cases just now. Busy. Overcome. Too much else to think about.
Hesitate in front of the stairs.
“I’ve brought you something.” Mycroft’s voice. Bit of singsong. (He’s teasing me.) Echoes down the stairs. Freeze. Turn back. Gifts from Mycroft are never a good sign. Can go sit in the wretched pub until John comes home. “Come on. You’ll like it. I thought since you broke yours you might like another.” Ah. He’s brought me a new bow. Tempting. (Can feel the cheapness of the new one. Too stiff. Flat tone. Balance is off.)
(Bet it’s French. Gold-mounted pernambuco. Circa 1870.)
Turn around again. Reluctant. One stair at a time.
“That’s it.” His pleased voice. Damn him. Bloody manipulative bastard.
Mycroft. Sitting in John’s armchair. Holding a French, gold-mounted pernambuco bow from end to end, between his index fingers. As if he’d let it hit the floor if I hadn’t come up the stairs just now.
“Good afternoon, Sherlock.” Smiles. Shows his (newly-whitened) teeth. (New suit. Slightly different cut to hide the weight he’s put on. Recurrent visceral fat deposits on his belly, leaving him with stick thin legs like an ostrich. Suit doesn’t hide this. Smirk.)
Fall into the armchair opposite. “What do you want, then.”
“Hardly anything at all.” He smiles. “A minor matter of some leaked documents I'd like you to look into. An inside job, I thought you'd like that."
Dull. “Not interested.”
“No?” He presses his thumb and ring finger around the stick, the light falls on the (stunning) tortoiseshell frog. Holds it as if he were about to play. “Are you quite sure?” Studies the hank of horsehair. “You needn’t agree to it just now, of course...” Strokes the stick lovingly. (Bastard.) “You could just look over the evidence, couldn’t you?”
French. Gold-mounted pernambuco. It would make John's Tchaikovsky sound like silk. (Damn it.)
Unfair. Entirely. “I suppose I could.” Were I so inclined. (Which I am not.)
Smiles. Turns it and holds the bow out to me. "Here. It’s yours.” Don’t move. Don’t trust him. He raises an eyebrow. “Go on.”
I take it. It’s beautiful. It’s perfect. Better than my last bow by a wide margin.
Mycroft. Smiles at me like an indulgent grandfather. Reaches into his pocket and takes out a notebook. A therapist’s notebook. Whose? (Did John return to his useless therapist? How did I fail to notice that?)
“It seems,” he flips open the notebook, pages through it carefully as if its sheets were lined in gold dust, “well, it seems as though congratulations are in order, are they not?” Slides his knuckles down the page before he turns to another. Flesh against paper. “You’ve been keeping something from me, Sherlock.”
“I keep everything I can from you, Mycroft.” Muted bite. Still in too good a mood. Beautiful bow in my hands. John will be home in a few hours. I can play for him.
“So you do. Requires me to do such plebeian digging.” His hands stop. A relevant page. He smiles at me.
He reads: “Complex relationship in the nature of polyamory.” Looks up at me. Thinks this is funny. “Were you aware that you were part of a polyamorous relationship? I suppose you must have been, on some level.” Flips to another page. “Demonstrated asexuality of former flatmate causes marital tension. There’s evidence here, you know; tabulated. It’s not a poor list. You make for an interesting study on the subject.”
Roll my eyes. “I’m sure you’ve found it all very entertaining.”
“Oh, quite. Most recent lover a perfect acquisition for patient's pathology: intellectually and sexually appealing, but requires no emotional investment. Does that sound familiar?”
Feel as though doused in cold water. Perfect acquisition indeed. No emotional investment required? Mary’s interpretation. Not John’s. Couldn’t be. (Could it?) Maybe once, but not now.
“It’s not John who’s returned to his therapist. Relax. The evidence isn’t quite that intimate.” He wrinkles his nose. “I wouldn’t want to read too many of the sordid details, frankly.”
Mary found herself a new therapist? Couldn’t she have found one who doesn’t allow the government access to patient notes?
Mary didn’t find a therapist. A therapist found her. One in Mycroft’s employ. (Does she know Mycroft is paying someone to glean her darkest secrets for his own amusement? She’s met him; my “brother in government.” Under what circumstances did he arrange for them to meet? What lies could he possibly have told her to make her so at ease?)
“Demonstrates a compulsive need to stray from the marriage, for that straying to be equitable and mutual.” He laughs. “It’s fascinating. She feels safest when her infidelities are equally measured out, you see? The opposite of the textbook. But of course, what other kind of entanglement would my dear brother find himself in but the most convoluted and complicated one possible!”
He flips through the notebook again. “Ah, but here comes the crux of it: patient’s husband thinks his former flatmate has romantic feelings for him. Arguments ensue. Patient fears it may end the marriage.” He has never once stopped grinning. It’s positively evil. “You’ve never been one to value emotions much, but do you see the value yours have? Look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair!”
He flips the notebook around. Holds a page up to my face. I don’t want to look. “You see the date? It was over a year ago. They’ve been having this argument for the duration of their marriage. Whether or not Sherlock Holmes loves John Watson.” Flips through a few more pages. “It seems to be their favourite topic. John was never entirely certain. Did he ever just ask you? Seems like the simplest solution.”
Looks up at me. Waits for an answer. Don’t want to give one.
“Ah. He did. Didn’t he. He asked. You avoided answering him, didn’t you. Well, you can’t blame him for everything, then, can you.” Flips through the book again.
“Ah, here we are: Correction: former flatmate not asexual after all. Only inexperienced, uncertain and shy. Shy! You!” He laughs so hard he nearly drops the notebook. Mrs Hudson must hear him all the way downstairs. She’ll be up with a pot of tea any moment.
“Patient’s husband has initiated a sexual relationship with his former flatmate.” He smiles his toothy smile at me. “Patient is relieved. That was Mary’s first reaction to John’s night here with you, did you know that? Relief! You’re still the cornerstone of that marriage. She’s attracted to you by proxy, it seems! And how twisted: it made Mary all the more certain you don’t have romantic feelings for John.” Closes the notebook, slips it back in his pocket. “She thinks you’re just like her. A predator. Using others for your own ends. Everyone is disposable. I suppose she’s right, really.”
“No?” He studies my face for what feels like a very long time. Nods. “No, I suppose not.” Smiles. “You’ll hold on to him, then. And you’ll treat him well.” I just stare at him. He nods again. “Mummy would have been so pleased.”
Chapter 21: His (Left) Hand
Supper in a paper bag on the table (getting cold). His face in my hands, his tongue caressing my bottom lip. One hand against my lower back, fingertips inching into my trousers. The other gripping my hair. All I can hear is a pounding heart (mine) and laboured breathing (mine; also his). Like we’re running. Tracking a serial killer. Same rush of adrenaline. Drop hands down to his waist; stroke his left hip. Hook my (right) thumb under his belt and pull. Can feel his erection press against my thigh. He groans. Smiles against my neck, laughs lightly. (Huff of his breath on my skin.)
“Christ.” Kisses my jaw. His (left) hand is resting on the small of my back as if designed to fit there. (Poetic license: a means to express that which cannot be proven or tested, but is true nonetheless.) Fingers stroking my coccyx. Shiver; his fingers trigger my vestigial pilomotor reflex. Gooseflesh. Sign of sexual arousal. (Accurate.) Senses on alert; can smell his skin, hear his breath running over his larynx. Feel his heartbeat through my fingers. Hyper-aware of him, every motion, every tensed muscle. (Kiss them all.)
“You make me feel like a bloody teenager.” He whispers it. Telling me a secret against my ear. An accusation. What I make him do. Feel. Feel what? Awkward? Confused? Angry? Sullen? Words that aptly describe my own teenage years. (How do normal teenagers feel?) “You touch me and I very nearly come in my pants, it’s ridiculous.” Ah. Sexual excitement leading to a premature ejaculation. A compliment? Possibly. (Probably.) Press my lips against his neck, hear the soft sounds in the back of his throat. Run hands over the (hot) skin of his back, the curved indentation of his spine. Kiss him. (His insistent tongue.)
“Sherlock, I-” Mrs Hudson. In the flat. Oh dear.
Realization in rapid retrospect: heard Mrs. Hudson’s kitten heels on the stairs. Heard her faint knock on the door, even. But ignored both sounds in favour of the breathy noises coming from John, his hot mouth, his fingers gripping my right buttock. Brain is selective in what it chooses to register.
A gasp. “Oh, I’m sorry, I...” Mrs. Hudson. John freezes, then quickly pulls his hand out of my trousers, disentangles himself from me. Her face goes from apologetic to apoplectic in a half-second. “John Watson!” Her mouth hanging open in surprise.
“Uh, I...” He clears his throat. Laughs softly. “Hello.” Adjusts his jumper.
“I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised!” Puts her hands on her hips. Anger readable in her every limb. “Just when he was finally moving on after you dashed his heart to pieces.” Crosses her arms over her chest, taps her foot. Have never seen Mrs. Hudson so angry. “Would it kill you to let poor Sherlock be happy for once?”
John opens his mouth to say something, but then closes it again. Turns to look at me. Question on his face. Looks startled.
“Now what are you planning to tell your young man, Sherlock?” She tsks at me. Oh dear. Ought to explain.
“You can’t have both of them!” She throws up her hands. “That goes for you too, John Watson. Make a decision and stick with it! I give up!” She turns and leaves, slamming the door behind her. Mutters all the way back down the stairs.
Silence. John’s hand reappears on my waist. Firm fingers. “Your young man?” (Is that jealousy? Can John honestly justify jealousy after all this? Him with a wife?)
(Flattered all the same.)
Sigh. Explain. “You.” He raises an eyebrow at me. Isn’t sure what to think. Doesn’t consider himself a young man. “She overheard us. Last week. She imagined you must have been someone else.”
“Moving on from...” Can hear him thinking, can almost feel it under his skin. Press my hands against his hips again. “Did she think we...” John and his perpetually unfinished sentences.
“Yes.” Affirm. “She thinks you broke my heart and left me for Mary.”
He snorts. “Right.” Shakes his head, smiles as if that’s funny, outrageous, unbelievable. “You’ll have to tell her the truth at some point so she can stop hating me, then.”
Pause. Consider. (Should I say this?) “Well.” (Perhaps I should.) “You did.” (Should clarify.) “Leave me. For Mary.” It hurts to say (more than expected). Stab in the chest, opens up a store of painful emptiness. (You left me, John.) Think of John’s bullet wound: the entryway of a foreign object punching through flesh. Emotional open wound. Catch breath. That hurts.
“No.” He looks at me, shakes his head. Insistent. Distressed. (Can’t imagine what he reads on my face.) Twists his lip under his teeth. His hands on my arms, he pulls me into a hug. Rests his head against my shoulder. Presses me close. Rubs my back. “No, no, not at all.” Wrap my arms around his waist, bury my face in his neck. Breathe him in, don’t let him go. (Yes, you did, John. Of course you did.)
Leans back, looks at me again. “I didn’t think...” He sighs. (Feel his exhale against my chin.) “I tried to talk to you about it, but...”
“I know.” I do. But it hadn’t been a question then. It had been a statement of fact, and it seemed true enough. (How was I to know? How was I to know it was meant to be a question?) Deductive failure. Those gaps in my knowledge John is always going on about. My ignorance is as remarkable as my knowledge. Built of extremes.
“I didn’t think you were...” Pause. I was what? “Interested in anything like...” Like this? No. Not this. Like what he has with Mary. (We don’t have that. Do we? Don’t think so. Not yet. Maybe now, maybe soon?) Am I interested? Of course I am. (Was I then? Don’t think so. Don’t know. Didn’t know then what I know now. Didn’t know myself.) “I didn’t think you wanted a romantic relationship. With me.”
I don’t know. Maybe I did. Surely I would have, given a chance. I could have come to understand. Minus the heartbreak (could I have?).
Heartbreak. The sensation in my chest, the pain of seeing him with Mary, of seeing them happy: is that heartbreak? Suppose it must be. More noticeable now in its increasing absence; hand on a hot element: hurts more afterwards.
“I knew it then.” He says it looking me in the eye. Daring me to flinch away. I don’t. “That I loved you. What I wanted. It didn’t seem very likely. I couldn’t...” Closes his eyes. (Too much? Too difficult to be so honest? With words? With me?) “I wanted to give you what you wanted from me and not more, you understand? How could I stay here with you, wanting you like,” opens his eyes again, returns his hands to my lower back, my coccyx, lower. His fingers press hard against muscle. Groan (mine). “ Wanting you like this, like a fucking teenager, if you didn’t? It would have killed me.”
“You left me.” (His singular selfish action.) It’s true. An objective fact. I was alone. My hands shift against his skin.
Sighs again. “I suppose. The part of me you didn’t seem to want left. The problematic part. The rest of me stayed. Didn’t I?” Metaphysical nonsense. John cannot be divided into pieces, parts of him leaving and parts of him staying. Parts of him marrying Mary and the rest cleaving to me. “I was never going to leave you completely. I couldn’t have. I never wanted to. I need you.”
Hand on his jaw. Kiss him. It doesn’t matter. Can’t blame him. Had he managed to ask, rather than merely produce a statement of fact: would have told him the opposite of what (I now know) is true. Would have spent the rest of my life filled with a crippling regret (no doubt). Would have, wouldn’t have; doesn’t matter. Say it against his lips. “I love you.”
John is half asleep, his limbs entwined with mine, our bodies both spent (powered by nervous energy and reheated Chinese). Watch him. Relaxed shoulders, eyes closed. Slow inhale, exhale. His (left) hand is resting low on my stomach. Bit of light from the window leaves a glint on his wedding band (gold, scuffed). It rides too high on his finger, sitting (now) just below the knuckle. Loose.
Sudden realisation: the reason why he (left-handed) sleeps on the left side of his bed, leaving the right side for me. The habits of the sexually active. The hopeful. If he sleeps on the left side, and turns toward his bed partner on the right (me, this time, now, in reality and in his imagination), his dominant hand is free. Leaving my dominant hand free as well. To touch him. To stroke him. Always the left side of the bed, leaving the right side empty. An invitation. A request. Hungry imagination. John.
I realise: have not yet answered his question. (What do you want from me?) Promised to. Wanted to. Meant to. No more guessing. Rest my (right) hand against his (left). Feel the gold of his wedding band under my fingers. Grip it; pull. It catches on his knuckle first before it comes off entirely. Hold it for a moment: light. Inconsequential. (Can a commitment be such a light thing, such a trifle? A bit of jewelry that slips off so easily?) I put it on the bedside table. It clinks against the wood. (Small; a token. Nothing.) Take his hand again; bend my little finger around his ring finger, my fist under his palm. Ring of flesh, of bone, of me, where the (scuffled) gold used to be. Replacement. (John: you understand?) A request. A proposal. Another question.
That’s what I want from you, John. Couldn’t be any clearer. (Yes?)
He squeezes my fist (lightly). Raises his hand (my hand) to his mouth and kisses my finger curled around his. He understands. (Acceptance?) His thumb strokes mine. Presses my loose palm against his chest. His heart beating. Lean toward him; kiss his lips, his forehead. Listen to his breathing as he falls asleep.
Chapter 22: Advantage: John
Awake. (Why?) Dark.
(Middle of the night: somewhere between two and three in the morning.)
In bed. Hot. (Another body here with me. John. Heat pouring off him.) Nearly off the bed; propping himself up on his arms, one foot thrown to the floor. John; did he shout? Possibly. His breathing: sounds like he’s drowning.
(Pool. Explosion. John, don’t die.)
Slow brain, still half-awake: Not drowning. Nightmare.
Cautious. Sit up (head feels heavy). Brace self. (Nightmares can be violent.) Nightmare reaction appears to be a panic attack. John Watson, former solider, steady-handed killer, my sure-footed protector: not especially prone to panic attacks in the daylight. (Treats mere dreams like mortal danger, and mortal danger like mere dreams. My paradoxical man.)
“John.” A whisper. He turns toward me. My arms fall around him (naturally. Easily). His face against my chest. Tries to catch his breath. Like he’s choking. He’s shaking. Burning hot. Breathes through his nose. (Has practice. Been trained. Coping mechanisms, not solutions.)
Not sure what to do. Comfort required. (What does Mary do?) Stroke his hair. Rub his back. Listen as his breathing progresses from panicked gulping to jittery and deliberate inhale, exhale. Kiss his temple. (Demonstrated affection.) Does that help? Is there some other requisite action? Nuzzle into his neck.
“Do you want to talk about it?” (Right thing to say, isn’t it?)
He exhales hard through his nose. “No.” (Thank god.) Voice rough and raw. Shaky. Unlike him. Sign of his distress. “Sorry, but...”
“It’s fine.” Stroke his shoulder. Pull him with me back against the mattress. His head rests on his pillow. Face to face. Faint light from the window casts shadows that hide his eyes (open? Or closed? Can’t tell). Listen to his breathing, feel it against my cheek. Closer to normal (not there yet). Can feel his heartbeat (too fast).
Run fingers over his skin. His trembling shouldn’t be erotic to me (but it is). A constant shiver like intense arousal (but is not). Hot skin, his nude body. My (right) hand on his neck, stroke his jaw with my thumb. Slide downward; press lightly against his shoulder. (Trace the borders of his bullet wound. Lean forward and kiss it. Not the cause of his nightmares: the cause of him finding his way to me. Grateful for it.) He shifts his arm; rests it against my shoulder. His hand in my hair. (Love it when he plays with my hair.) Drag my hand across his ribs. Prominent bone of his hip. Dampness of nervous sweat on his stomach. Coarseness of his pubic hair, his penis in my fingers. Flaccid.
Haven’t touched him like this before. I am/he is always too eager; impossible to present ourselves in such a mundane state when we’re like this (naked in each other’s presence). Short moments, stolen. Months of fantasy packed into such a small (temporal) space. Explosion of desire. Now: nightmares, the tail end of a panic attack: not the stuff of fantasy. Desire (for me) the last thing on his mind. Hand lazily strokes my hair (bliss). Unconcerned. Trusting. Move my fingers against him. Delicate skin: silky, elastic, yielding, soft. Cradle his (inoffensive, utterly harmless) penis in my hand.
Without doubt: this is the most intimate thing I have ever experienced. This small action: bit of vulnerable flesh in the palm of my hand. Feel some hidden and unknown part of my psyche tear loose. (John: I love you.)
Stroke him with my thumb. Squeeze gently (appreciate the unique properties of erectile tissue).
He kisses the side of my mouth and sighs against me. His breathing: normal. (Fully recovered. My unorthodox cure for a panic attack works. Noted.)
He untangles his hand from my hair and rests it below my shoulder. Rubs his palm down to my wrist and back up again. (A subtle encouragement.) Stroke him more deliberately. His flesh in my hand: transforming. I can feel it: soft, yielding flesh grows marginally firmer; then firmer again. Blood filling his corpora cavernosa. No longer cupped gently in the palm of my hand; its boundaries extending, elastic skin pulls tight. Stroke him, feel the alterations of him under my palm. His breath speeds up again. Adaptations.
Feels different from the outside, this biological process; a metamorphosis. Silky softness that becomes a jutting, insistent demand. Familiar, predictable, but different. He moans, slides his fingers across my back, grips my shoulder, kisses me. His tongue on my lips. His face is damp (panic attacks often associated with tears; tears not associated with John. Recalculate.)
Circle his exposed frenulum with the tip of my thumb; he moans into my jaw. His hand trails down my back to my hip. Grips me there (hard). A request. (Harder. Faster.) Know what he wants. Desire so intense that it blots out everything else. (Know the feeling well.) Completion. Pleasure. Relief. (So very close.) Don’t comply; slow down instead, enjoy the altered texture of his skin, the sounds in his throat. (Not so fast, John.) I can feel him laugh against my lips.
“You tease.” Smile in his voice. He breathes hard. (He approves.)
Roll over; grab the small bottle left on the bedside table for just such a moment. (Ignore John’s ring dropped next to it.) Move back toward him, see him lying there in the dim of light from the window, lying in shadow and half-light; hands over his eyes, resisting the urge to finish himself off. He is beautiful. His lean, practical body, his desire so obvious. Kiss his mouth, his neck. His hands panic-weak against me. (He is exhausted. I am relentless. He doesn’t seem to mind.) Shift down along the bed, nudge his knees apart so I can crawl between them.
“There’s no hurry, is there?”
He makes a huffing sound that I know means Sure, no hurry. Not for you. He is close, he is desperate. But also: curious. Wants to know what I’ll do.
Two things at once: curl my lips around the corona of his glans and hear him moan, his hips rise up to meet me; flip the cap of the bottle and liberally coat my fingers with its contents. (A little too liberally, but better too much than not enough. Drips down onto my hand.) Fingernails clipped close in preparation. (Just in case the opportunity arose.) Glide my fingers between his legs. (He starts a little.) Tongue on his frenulum, light kiss against the shaft of his penis. One lubricated finger pressed against his anus. Moving in slick circles. Wait a moment for an objection. (None appears.) Be sure. Ask. “Yes?”
“Yes.” Quickly. Voice strained. Is he holding his breath? Grip his penis with my (left) hand. Tongue against his glans; a coating of pre-ejaculate. He shivers, makes an eager sound in his throat. The sounds he makes are addictive in and of themselves. (The various fluids he and his fluids replace: an addict cannot be entirely reformed; the addiction can only be (must be) transliterated into a more socially acceptable habit. In this case, monogamy. Did not realise it was so simple.)
Press in. Some give; then a tightening sphincter. (Expected. Autonomic. Research predicted it.) Phenomenally tight heat. Pull out and wait (30 seconds, count them), push back in again. The softness of his flesh here a surprise; so delicate, a contrast to the strength of the muscle warring against me. Practical research did not demonstrate this softness, though the reading suggested it. (Easily damaged. Move gently.) Dead flesh not as soft as John’s living flesh. Certainly not as hot, as flexible, as responsive. The dead do not writhe with pleasure, do not make those breathy groans, do not repeat one’s name in a gravelly undertone. (Advantage: John.)
The idea of this act alone (let alone the act itself): a part of me inside of him, deliriously wonderful. Like him playing with my hair; a tingle that travels through me. Third push, and calculate: roughly two inches in. Feel, upward, and... there.
A string of creatively constructed curses from John. Affirmation. Prostate found. Pull back out; introduce a second finger. Even easier to find the second time. A second string of swearing (thematically related to the first, but not identical). The tiniest of motions inside him, fingers moving in a circular pattern. Pressure. Constant. Lips against his (right) testicle, hand stroking his penis, the pads of two fingers against that curious gland inside of him. Feel the tensing of his body (inside and out). His breath a constant vocalisation (no words). His thighs vibrate with tension. One small (tense) pause and his body goes nearly rigid. He ejaculates with a sob. (Reverberates through him longer than average. Effect of prostate stimulation. The research suggested that too.) Hands on him until he collapses against the mattress.
“Jesus Christ.” His voice quavers. Slide my fingers out of him; he makes a plaintive sound. (Pain? No. Oversensitivity.) Rearrange my limbs; crawl up his body to rest my head against his chest. Feel his trembling, his breath, his heart. Deep breaths, recovery. (Two sets of recoveries; from panic, and from pleasure. Matched set.)
He lays an arm across my shoulders. Weak, loose. Exhales. “Jesus.” Invoked many times tonight. “That was...” Struggles to find words. “Where the hell did you learn...?"
“Tell me you didn’t stick your fingers into dead men’s rectums to learn how to do that.”
Of course I did. How else could I find a small gland, without any experience, in a place where I cannot see it? How else could I efficiently and effectively locate the proper spot inside the human male body in such a high-pressure situation? There’s simply no substitute for first hand experience. (I can’t make bricks without clay.)
“I sense that my answer to that question may not be the one you want to hear.”
He laughs. He laughs so hard he jolts me off his chest. He is laughing hysterically (it is hard to avoid joining in). Roll to one side, prop up chin on my hand. Watch him. Giggle. (Suppose it is a bit funny. To people who don’t have regular access to cadavers and a constant, gnawing curiosity.)
He laughs and laughs, his hand stroking my shoulder. “God, you’re mad.” Tries to kiss me but he can’t stop laughing, rapid breath on my face so much like his panic attack. (The varied emotions of human beings: so much more complicated than their physical states. Agony to ecstasy, despair to delight: look and feel so similar.)
“You’re absolutely stark raving mad, and I love you.” He laughs until tears stream down his face (twice in one night: tears). Wipes his face with his hand. “Oh my god.” The laughter slows down a little and then starts back up again. “I presume you washed your hands afterward.”
“Of course! But it was days ago!” Pause. “I wore gloves.” Obviously. (Does that even need to be said?)
Just makes him laugh harder. He holds his stomach like it’s hurting him. (Must be waking Mrs Hudson by now, who would surely not be as amused as he is.) 3 a.m. fits of laughter; added to the list of inappropriate activities that go on in 221b. At length his laughter subsides enough that he can kiss me (lightly), Presses his tear-wet face against my neck, but he’s still grinning.
“You know.” Do I? (Probably.) “if you want to experiment.” Seems like a preposterous statement. (No if required at any time.) Drapes his arm across my waist. “You can experiment with me.”
Experiment with a live (loved) body; intriguing. Jolt of euphoria. Expanded realms of experimentation. (His writhing body. Appealing.) He turns, his back to my chest, the length of his body against me. Rests his head on (my) pillow. Arm across his hip. (Comfortable. Sleepy.)
“Okay.” Rest my head against the back of his neck. “I will.”
“Good.” Pause. Feel laughter rising again in his chest. “It would be awkward to feel jealous of a corpse.” He laughs into my pillow.
Chapter 23: The Hidden Man
Fingerprints. Watermarks. Trail of IP addresses. Analytics data. Database logs. A consistent spelling error.
Motives (too obvious; clumsy. Pointing in the wrong direction). Lengthy email exchanges. (The smell of coffee.) Transcripts of phone tapped conversations. Photographs. Evidence of a sex scandal (pedestrian; too dull for words). Receipts. (Toast.)
Convoluted trail that turns in upon itself, branches out and merges back together. Maddening. Key piece of evidence missing; the middle of the puzzle still obstinately blank. (Requires legwork. Research. Possibly a disguise.) Not uninteresting.
For the bow, for the bow. Would he take it back if I refused? (Not just possible. Probable.) Typical Mycroft: wait for me to get used to it, to love it, to be unable to live without it, then snatch it back. Like his precious (bloody) chess set (1981). Bastard. Has been playing me like his (bloody) viola since I was five years old. Places deliberate pressure in just the right places, forces it (forces me) to sing (a very specific, desired note) on command. Seethe. Comply anyway. (No choice.)
Transaction records. Evidence of fraud. Newspaper: four stories reported as unconnected all related to this case. Intriguing. In spite of its origins.
Annoying email from Mycroft. (Ignore it.) Three texts from Lestrade (dull).
In front of me, a cup of coffee (steaming). Plate: toast (jam).
Awake (obviously). Moving around the kitchen. Making breakfast (for me). Talking (to me). Damp hair, dressed. Wearing a shirt he left upstairs a year ago, laundered by Mrs Hudson. His jeans (picked up from the bedroom floor).
“—and you wouldn’t know it looking at him.” Chuckles to himself. He’s told a joke? An amusing anecdote? Have missed the entirety of the conversation? Missed that we were having a conversation. Missed that he was here. (How?)
How long has he been talking to me? (How long has he been awake?) Must have got out of bed, said good morning, taken a shower, dressed, come back downstairs and made coffee. Toast. Spread jam. Placed the cup and the plate under my nose. How have I become so unobservant? (Is he angry? Hurt? Disappointed?)
He looks at me. Confusion must be written all over my face. He smiles. “You haven’t heard a word I’ve said, have you.”
A right answer; a wrong answer. Which is which? (Does everything depend upon my answer?)
He laughs. “It’s all right. I was talking shite anyway.” Puts a cup and a plate into the sink. He has become so familiar to me that my senses let him pass without comment, without alarm. (Strange.) “Case?”
“And you’re taking it? That’s unusual.”
“I said I’d look at the evidence.” Been up for hours. Thirsty. Didn’t notice that, either. Brain has equated John with the various foibles and needs of my own body, to be ignored in favour of brainwork. (Sanctified and joined together. Of one flesh. Are we? Already? Quiet ceremonies in the night are powerful.) Wrap fingers around cup of coffee (hot). Drink. (Perfect.) Reassuring (I suppose). Ability to concentrate utterly and completely: not affected by his presence, his wandering around the flat, his idle conversation. (The hidden man of the heart, not corruptible.)
“Gives you something to do.” Smiles at me, fond. Smile back. (I’m only able to ignore you because I love you, John. Accept this humble offering.)
“Lestrade doesn’t have anything more interesting.” (Yet.) A good murder would be nice. (Serial killer: haven’t seen one of those in a while.) Better than a case involving a few (frankly dull) leaked documents. (Mycroft: a life drowned in useless paperwork.) Could drop the file back in Mycroft’s lap, take John with me under the police tape, revel in the urgency of serial murder. The tiny, telling details.
Watch John wash his hands in the sink. (Not wearing his ring.) Wipes his palms on a tea towel (moderately clean).
“It’s nothing dangerous, is it?” John: leaning back against the sink.
“No, not terribly.” Well, potentially. Everything is potentially dangerous. Leaving the flat is potentially dangerous. (Staying in the flat is potentially dangerous.) Bite of toast. More coffee. Rifle through a stack of income tax returns.
Out of the corner of my eye, witness: John stuffing his hand in his pocket, pulling something out. See him stare down at the palm of his hand. Ring (glint of gold in the pale light through the kitchen window). Looks at it. Lost in thought. Rustle some papers. Distract him. (Feel awkward. Uncomfortable. Mildly embarrassed.)
(Removing it: not his decision. Mine. A suggestion, not meant to be a demand. More an explanation. An answer. To his question. Feel my face flushing. Drink more coffee.)
Don’t put it back on, John. Don’t. Say nothing. Only a symbol. A bit of jewellery. Doesn’t matter.
He puts it back in his pocket. Clears his throat.
“I need to run a few errands.” Look up. Smile. He looks tired. Slept late (unusual). “You’re not going to get yourself into any trouble with this case, are you?” (Affection.)
“Of course not. Just a bit of legwork.”
Legs, arms, both fighting back hard, both failing. Hands around my throat. Suspect has nearly (but not entirely) closed off my airway. Panic. Body’s urge to breathe stronger than (nearly) any other.
Slight misjudgment. (Wright. Government employee. Didn’t think he’d be here, trading secrets in broad daylight, making it plain that I was right, he was Mycroft’s leak.) Boring middle manager (thumbs digging into my throat). No history of violence. No history of murder, certainly. Caught me off-guard. (Didn’t think he would be here. Didn’t think he was capable. Didn’t think.) Caught me without my careful protector and his trusty gun.
Territorial Army (never deployed). Stronger than the research suggests. Hands feel like steel against my throat. Squeezes hard.
He’s swearing at me, his face so red it’s as though he’s the one being throttled. (Dyspnea: have lost fine motor control.) Kick up, use my knees, my fists, squirm, but can’t shake him loose. Can’t stop trying: insufficient air has pushed me into violence. He swears and his saliva hits my face. He gets a better grip. Airway: closed.
Urge to breathe is indeed stronger than any other. Can barely think of anything else.
Phone: vibrating in my pocket. John. Responses to my last (terse) text. Dangerous. He’s here.
John. Find me. Save me. Take out your gun and shoot this man, make his hands fall away from my throat. Cover me in his blood. Kill him and feel no remorse (this one isn’t very nice either). Kill him and play innocent. I will keep your secrets forever.
Phone vibrates again. Then again. John. Where are you?
Too late, too late. Less than two minutes before I will pass out. (Die in a swoon. Like a proper Victorian heroine. The irony.) Struggle hard: shift his hands. Get a thin gasp of air. (Delaying the inevitable.) Hurts. Chest filled with burning fluid. Demanding lungs override every other sensation (even pain). Fingers go numb. Pressure in my chest, want to scream, no air. No air. Silent.
Shoes on the stairs. John. (Here.) Running. No limp at all. (Danger. Me, once again, in need of a rescue.) Running. In slow motion: I can feel each step, the slapping sound of his shoe against a raw wooden stair, then another; feels like it will take months for him to get here, to bang open the door, to stand there on the threshold with his gun pointed forward, to see me here, my lips (surely) turning blue, my hands weak and grasping, to assess the situation (attacker, me on the brink of death), to aim and point, to squeeze the trigger. We are close (so close), Wright’s face nearly pressed into mine, but John won’t hit me with his precise bullet. (John: too good a shot for that.) Would forgive him if he did, though: would lie on the floor and bleed out and stare at his face, his worried face, his apologetic face, grip his hand (with no ring) and let him be the last thing I see. Resign myself to it. Nothing left to say. Kill me John, let me see your face.
Door bangs open. Vision is dimming; limbs twitch. John shouts something I can’t understand, runs forward. (Shoot him, John. Shoot us both if you have to.) The sound of metal against flesh: John’s gun making contact with Wright’s temple. Suddenly: hands vanish from my throat. Gasp, gulp air, breathe breathe. Pain lurches through me. Rapid pulsing through my throat. Heart beating too fast. Rush of blood to my arms, my legs (my numb feet). Pain.
Breathe. (Too fast, too fast.)
Cough. Groan. Fluid pours out of my mouth onto the greasy floor. Gag. John’s left hook into Wright’s face and he’s on the floor too. Blood trickles from his mouth. (Breathe. try not to hyperventilate. Fail.)
Gun placed on the floor in front of me. (Familiar: like an extension of John. Feel a stab of affection for it/him.) Safety catch off (he was ready to fire, send another wayward criminal
towards a sticky end). Brushed metal. (Bit of blood on the butt; John hits hard when he wants to.) Wright in the background (out cold).
My head resting against the floor on an angle. Feel weak. At eye level: John’s shoes. Then his (denim-covered) knees.
“You’re an idiot.” Concern in his voice; also relief. Look up at him. Anxiety on his face. Fear. (Doesn’t want to lose me. His chaos; being chaotic.) Blink. His hands on my chest: checking for broken bones. Fingers trace lightly over my hyoid (broken? hopefully not), my cricoid, down across my jugular notch. Gentle fingers. Soft touch. (John’s hands, versatile: like a voice with a four octave range.) “That’s going to be a hell of a bruise.”
Hear sirens outside. Lestrade. Not as fast as John. Hand on my face. Feel his breath; fast. Adrenaline. Try to swallow (hurts). Cough. Rolls me on my side (recovery position). “What were you thinking?” Strokes my hair. “Don’t try to answer that. Christ, Sherlock.” Leans over, picks up the gun. Switches on the safety catch. Pushes it back under the waistband of his jeans, against his lower back. “Not as if I can’t work it out anyway.”
Smile. Of course he can. He understands. Compulsion. Curiosity.
(Breathe. Breathe.) Press hands against the floor (fingers feel thick and swollen.) Sit up.
“Careful.” John’s hands on me, holding me. Knee against my back (support). Hand on the back of my neck. Hear the door open downstairs; Lestrade and the Met. Feet on the carpet; on the stairs. Lestrade calls my name.
John leans into me, kisses my temple. (Gentle.) “You scared me.” Whispers it: as if the Met (on the stairs, turning on the landing) might hear him. Lean into him; rest my forehead against him.
“Knew you’d turn up.” Comes out as a wheeze. He laughs softly as Lestrade appears at the door, surveys the scene: bloodied body in the middle of the floor, me weakened and gasping, John propping me up, his (right) hand hovering protectively over my clavicle.
“What the hell have you done now?”
Chapter 24: Sociopath
He holds her chair, motions for her to sit. She does. (New dress. Purple. Fitted bodice, plunging neckline. She tugs at the hem. Too short.) Looks back at him (flirty smile, eyes half-shut). Turns her head to watch him walk to his own chair. He pulls it out from under the (cheap) patio table, sits. Knee bounces; fidgeting. He’s nervous. Uncomfortable. Adjusts his (incredibly boring) tie. Thumb fiddles with his wedding ring under the table. He never stops talking. She nods, smiles, laughs. (False laugh: too deliberate. She’s humouring him.) He runs his hand through his hair (recently cut). Looks nervous. (Guilty.) Keeps glancing over his shoulder, afraid someone will see them. (I do.)
So Mary has a new lover. (Not a huge surprise. Bit fast, though.) Who is he?
Walked here from work. (Finance.) New. (Keycard clipped to his belt still shiny, unmarked.) Probably unsuccessful. (Scuffed shoes, ink on his hands, folders of papers shoved into a bag. Puffiness under his eyes. Anxious. Performance lacklustre. Not lunch (no time for a lunch break), but coffee early in the morning. Affair: distraction.)
She reaches across the table. Strokes his hand. He blushes. Bites his lip (briefly: reminds me of John). Blinks. Mary: brazenly flirting. Utterly confident. (Her shoes: silver. Also new.) She is happy, completely content. (Why?) A new conquest in front of her, evaporated guilt? Pleased that John is spending more time with me? Fewer lies to construct? Fewer nights to fill with crap telly? More time for her (beloved) affairs? Her warped status quo: John has his, she has hers. Doesn’t care anymore who’s watching. (Doesn’t see me.) Wears her wedding ring with impunity while sneaking her foot up another man’s trouser-leg. (Doesn’t matter; equilibrium. She knows where John was last night.) Doesn’t care who sees, doesn’t care what they suspect. A man and a woman with wedding bands; could be married to each other. Every married man in England could be married to her. (For a night or two, at least.) Her posture suggests victory; desired outcome achieved. A future of rotating secret lovers and one stalwart man at home, in love with a loveless, impotent beast (me). Her dream; John’s (willing) descent into hell.
Pull out phone; no texts. Send one.
You bite your lips frequently. It’s endearing. SH
The waiter arrives; they order. She laughs more than is justified. Burbling over with delight. So counter-intuitive; the more of those vows they break the happier she is. There are shadow-vows beneath the more traditional ones, the obvious ones. I’ll keep them and you can keep him. Contortions. Makes motivations harder to spot.
Have never seen Mary so easy to read; her defences are all down. She isn’t even trying to hide her tells anymore. She looks confident in her affairs and in her marriage because she is. So confident that she has me worked out (why?). To her I am no threat, I can never provide what she can (comfort, love, the simplest affection, regular humdrum conversations, what more? Surely there’s more). What has made her so certain? (John? No. He was never so certain himself.)
Phone vibrates. Take two steps back behind the tree. (I’ve seen enough.) Text from John. Affection blooms in my chest (flexing of that strange new organ there: theoretical, hormonal, chemical, metaphorical).
Is that so? :) This your way of telling me you’re thinking of me?
I see you in everything now. Nearly impossible to stop thinking of you. Such romantic thoughts.
An excellent deduction. SH
The place John chooses to meet Mary for lunch is an awkward one. So open, few places to sit and listen. (Deliberate? Perhaps.) Have to stand at quite a distance to watch at all. John arrives first. (Ache to touch him.) He looks even more nervous than her new financier. (Still no ring on his finger.) He’s texting. (Her? Me?)
Phone vibrates. (Me, then.)
Got a case? Or are you shooting the walls again?
Have a case of sorts. SH
See Mary approaching in her purple dress, walking with easy confidence.
Consider: she is not unlike him. She too seeks danger by compulsion. Seeks out others who do the same (just like he does). He walks around London with a gun pressed against the small of his back. Offers up his life for the slightest advantage. Runs toward the sounds of battle rather than away from it. And she asks him (only) to risk his heart (the metaphorical one). A small shift (risk the emotional, not the physical). A tiny accommodation. Also for the sake of adrenaline. (Addicts, all of us.) But her risks are not the kind that cure his limp, that make him feel alive. (We have learned that much.) He has a taste for a different kind of danger altogether (mine). Less subtle, more masculine, more brutal. More violent. More likely to end in death. (Hers hurts more; hurts more than a bullet in the shoulder, than a lame leg. Never fatal. Never visible.)
Busy all day then? I shouldn’t expect to see you later?
She approaches the patio; John rises. They smile at each other. (John looks sad in spite of it.) She meets him at his table and they embrace. They kiss (briefly). His hand between her shoulder blades. (Jealousy is a useless emotion.) She pats his hair, smiles, laughs. They sit. He is deeply uncomfortable; she doesn’t notice. Still riding her high from the morning. Crosses her legs (doesn’t tug on the hem of her too-short dress.) They order.
After the food arrives, Mary sees that John isn’t wearing his ring. Remarks on it. See the shift in her posture when she notices; a tinge of concern. She takes his hand, asks him. (“Where’s your ring? Have you lost it?” Can’t hear her, but I can imagine; can almost make out the words on her lips.) He closes his eyes. Opens them again, his face even sadder. He pulls it out of his pocket, shows her, it sits on the palm of his hand. He explains. (Can’t quite make out his words; he’s speaking quietly, minimal lip movement.) His face, his body: shame, sadness, awkwardness, his desire not to hurt her. (Impossible.) He leans back, mouth closed. He’s said his piece. Waits. Moves his hands into his lap. Fiddles with the ring. (Nervous.)
Mary is still for a moment. Posture frozen. Her built-in defenses coming back up. Moment of openness gone. Sinks back into her habitual unreadability. She laughs.
Laughs. (Even I did not anticipate that.) John looks confused (hurt, even). Surprised. Confounded. She starts to talk. Animatedly. Can only catch bits of what she says, she is talking too fast. Too far away: difficult to read her lips. Catch only “do you really think,” and “you can’t be serious,” and “you know how he is.” John’s eyes focus on the ring in his hands (curled in his lap) and stay there. She goes on. An argument she has planned. The argument in her head, the one she believes (completely). Details and evidence. Doubt. Questions. Complete confidence in her knowledge of me. Convinced I am not what John hopes I am. (What I also hope.) Her evidence must be staggering. Compelling. (Easy to imagine what it is. Not as if I haven’t left a trail of it.) What’s most convincing? Which part? My history, my behaviour? My occasional lapses of judgement? She goes on. She talks with her hands. Watch her. Watch him. His face.
John’s face. Pain. Doubt? Fear? He is conflicted, he is uncomfortable. She is forcing him to look in places he’d rather not. Eyes into the sun. (Eyes still trained on his ring. His hands.) Text him.
Taking you out for dinner. Persian. I once proved the owner had only a minor connection to a terrorist plot. SH
Watch him. Distracted from the onslaught; pulls his phone from his pocket. It sits in his hands, along with his ring. (Her; me. Held simultaneously.) Reads. Smiles.
Mary sees his smile. Recognises it. Back stiffens. (Doubt?) Battle of body language. She laughs again, smooths her hair behind her ear. Crosses her arms over her chest. Tilts her head in wordless disbelief. Can’t see her lips. She’s talking. John is tuning her out. (I have intruded.) Still smiling.
If you’re amenable, that is. SH
Watch him reply. Smile on his face. Mary stiffens a little more.
One foot on a bottle crate. Reach up to the top shelf. Layer of dust. One finger along the spine (don’t rip it). Feel its thick pages. Pull (carefully). It resists for a moment, then comes free from its mates. Slides out along the rough wood. Fingers on the cover. Prodromus der Moosgesellschaften Zentraleuropas, Alex Von Hübschmann. (1986.) Been looking for it everywhere. Smells musty (familiar; pleasant).
Phone vibrates. (John?) Pull it out, look. Not John. Mary. (Why?)
We need to talk. Come by the library ASAP plz.
Place the book (gently) on the shelf; ensure it won’t fall. Text back.
Wait. Brush dust from my latest acquisition. Admire the inlaid cover with an artistic rendition of a common bryophyte. No doubt she will respond momentarily. She does.
You know very well why.
Pick up the book. Tuck it under my arm; bring it to the front of the shop. Unkempt student rings it up. (Has no idea of its actual value.) Look across the street at Mary’s library.
Terribly inconvenient. Middle of a case. Will drop by when I can. SH
We are constantly interrupted by students. (Help with printing, help with formatting footnotes, help with a paper jam. One looking for the bathroom.) Mary irritably redirects them. She sits on a tall stool, as if hovering in the middle of the round enquiries desk. Leans back a bit. Glares at me. Bit of scrap paper in my hand. Fold it, fold it again. Tear it into pieces.
“Now he’s even more confused.” She shoos away another student. “What on earth have you done?”
Say nothing. What’s to say?
“Couldn’t you just tell him the truth?”
“I did tell him the truth.”
“He clearly doesn’t understand. Try again.”
“Has it occurred to you that he does?” Drop a small pile of mutilated paper on the desk. She brushes it into the bin. Fires an icy glare out of the corner of her eye at a passing student.
“Are you mad?” Turns her icy glare on me. (I remain unmoved.) “Of course you are. He took his ring off, Sherlock. He quite obviously doesn’t.”
“Why are you so certain that you do?” Am nearly finished with this conversation.
“I have it on good authority,” her eyes narrow, “that you are most certainly not capable of the things John thinks you are. I’ve seen the diagnosis.”
Mycroft (bastard). His access to medical records. (Even mine? Especially mine. Can’t keep his fat fingers away from anything.) Record of my childhood fearlessness. Difficulty controlling me. Threats of punishment: failed. Probably had the reports from my various psychiatrists all along, tucked away in a file. In spite of Mummy’s anger and dismissal of the diagnosis. In spite of her destruction of them, her determination that I never be thus classified and labelled. Her refusal to accept it. Recall her fury at the psychiatrist, at the school; labelling me (at such a tender age) the way they did.
(Psychopath.) Unethical to call me that. I was only seven.
Told the psychiatrist that I dissected cats. (Was proud of myself.) He presumed I meant living ones, but I meant ones that were already dead. (Neighbour’s dog was not a fan of cats. Seized them by their backs in his big, slobbery mouth and shook them. Perfect specimens, but for all the broken necks.) Didn’t realise it was important to mention that I didn’t kill them. (Wouldn’t make that mistake now.)
Mummy’s repeat performance with a second diagnosis in my teens. (Sociopath: Antisocial Personality Disorder.) She burned that file in the sitting room fireplace, with an audience of one (me).
(Told the second psychiatrist exactly what he expected to hear; I was fifteen. The truth of the textbook seemed like the only verifiable truth. Still dissecting creatures that were already dead. Still fearless. Still interested in dead bodies and criminal intent; necessitated a certain amount of risk-taking. Still distanced from emotion, from human connection. Told him what he expected to hear. What I myself believed to be true. Unsurprising result.)
Mycroft. Brought those records to Mary the way he brought her diagnoses to me. (How did I fail to deduce that before? Or even to consider it? A failure of the imagination.) A dual game; the things Mycroft does to amuse himself. Would feel betrayed if I could summon up any surprise at all. (Of course there were copies of those files, even though Mummy swore she had them all destroyed. Of course they still exist. Of course Mycroft has them. Watching them burn in the grate felt like watching them dissolve forever. Naive at fifteen. Still naive at thirty-four.)
“Then I suppose you must be right.” Aiming for detached (perfectly suited to a diagnosed sociopath). It comes out more angry and hurt than I anticipated. Stab of fear. Will she tell John? (Has she already done so?) Would he believe it? (Why wouldn’t he?)
“Just tell him the truth.” Slightest hint of pity on her face. She glances at her watch. “All of it. I have to go. Meeting.”
Mary’s meeting is with Mycroft. Of all people. In the library’s café. Out in the open, where anyone might see them. (Where I can see them. Walls of glass; on display. Lit from above: obvious.) So unlike Mycroft. He generally doesn’t like to be in public for his little chats (his manipulations). Prefers to keep them off CCTV, away from prying eyes (mine) and public view. Notice the cameras are all turned away; an orchestrated moment. (Not that anything Mycroft does isn’t an orchestrated moment.)
Feeding her information? More of the petty details of my life? (Why?) He bolsters her confidence. Encouraging her to think of me as a non-threatening beast, barely human, easy escape for John to purge his need for danger. A safe but impotent place for his wayward devotion. The crutch Mary needs to allow her to remain (happily) married. Me: a fractured man with a broken brain. Incapable of deeper emotion. (Why would he do that?)
Stand outside, on the pavement, hidden by traffic, by a post box, a bollard. A row of newspaper boxes. In shadow. Hidden. Across the street. At best he could see my coat, my shoes, not my face. Hidden in plain sight. See them sitting, coffee cups in hand, Mary’s thigh so close to the glass I can see a scar there (old). Not tugging on the hem. Staring at Mycroft. Staring.
So angry: feel a urge to break the glass, shatter it, make it rain down across the tables, across their skin. Use a shard of it to slice Mycroft’s jugular. (Just like the psychopath he believes I am.) Watch him bleed. A satisfying fantasy. Shaking with rage. Remind myself to breathe. Hands balled up in fists.
Mycroft: folds his hands together on the tiny chessboard table. His lips moving. Too angry to concentrate. No idea what he’s saying. Calm face. Mary: listens. Listens harder. Eyes open wide. Says nothing. Buries her face in her hands. Mycroft doesn’t move. She’s clearly crying. He’s still talking. Face doesn’t shift at all. (No pity. No remorse. No sympathy. And they say I’m the sociopath in the family.) What is he saying to her? How could he make her confidence and swagger dissolve so fast? (John?)
Text John: Are you all right? SH
Mycroft doesn’t move at all until he does. Turns, looks right at me. (Surely he can’t see me. Surely he can’t. I am well-hidden.) His eyes trained on me. Boring holes through the bollard, through the post boxes, through the traffic. Recognises me by one shoe and the fabric of my coat as seen between speeding cars. (Better at it than I am. Better at everything.)
A car pulls up in front of me: black. Door opens. Mycroft quirks an eyebrow, lifts his hand; wags his finger at me. (He knows. How?) His assistant gets out, walks around the row of newspaper boxes. takes my arm.
Phone vibrates. Text.
I’m fine. Why? What’s going on?
“Time for you to go home, Sherlock.” She sounds tired (annoyed). Hasn’t stopped looking at her phone. Mycroft glances at Mary. Face in her hands. Shaking. Looks back at me. For a moment an unfamiliar expression on his face: regret. (For what he’s done to her, or what he’s done to me?) His assistant pulls me toward the car. “That’s enough for now.”
Corduroy jacket, tie. Pressed shirt and trousers. Polished shoes. John combed his hair. (Also: he smells nice.) He doesn’t object to the candle on the table. Doesn’t object to Mazyar (unendingly grateful) giving us a private nook at the back of the restaurant. We are (clearly) on a date. Feel somewhat under-prepared.
Ask him about his day. (Not so difficult. Answer not even uninteresting.) Mentions lunch with Mary (somehow didn’t think he would). Awkward.
“I tried to explain.” He sighs. “I think I failed. She’s got it set in her head that...” Trails off. Know what she has in her head. Don’t need to hear him say it. She’s got it set in her head that I’m incapable of feeling genuine emotions, incapable of remorse, or empathy, or guilt. That I am a manipulative liar. That I am unreliable and cannot be trusted. That I will never be the man that John imagines me to be. (Wants me to be.) Will only ever be half a man; other half excised by nature. Hobbled. Broken. For good or for ill. (Can hardly blame her. I believed it too.) A long pause.
Should clarify. In case he’s not sure. “I’m not a sociopath.” Pretty certain I’m not.
“I know that.” He answers quickly. Pained look on his face. (Can’t imagine what he can read on mine.)
She told him. Showed him the files. Ages ago (probably). He must have always known. From the moment Mycroft gave them to her (when; the moment they first met? After their first date? The night of their engagement? The morning after their wedding? When, Mycroft?) My oldest secrets, the things no one was ever supposed to know. Descriptions of me no one should have ever read again. Buried memories. Old mistakes as well as new ones. Sullen self-assessments. Failures. Embarrassed; stab of shame, rage (at Mycroft, at Mary. At myself). Feel blood rushing to my face.
He reaches across the table and takes my hand.
“I know that.” His eyes: serious. Can see the candle flame flickering in them. He knows; doesn’t believe it. Knows better. Knows me. Has spent the better part of two years disproving a diagnosis made twenty-seven years ago. He leans toward me, narrowly avoiding setting his elbow into the candle. Hand on my jaw. Kisses me. (Kebab, rice, the slightly sour taste of doogh: John.) Doesn’t even care who sees. Kisses my (right) cheekbone. Runs his fingers through my hair. Leans back a little and looks at me.
“I know that.”
Text. Lestrade. Case. A second murder (identical to the first). Brilliant. (Love a serial killer.) Text him back: tell him I’m on my way. (How will the incisions look? Perfect? Perfectly the same as the first? And the hands, the fingers? Posed just the same, with fishing line?) Shiver of delight. Jacket; keys; phone. Dropped into pockets. (Where’s John?) Pull open the door, and step–
Mrs Hudson. Holding a plate (assorted biscuits). For a moment the plate (faint floral pattern, not her typical set, glued-over crack down the middle) looks as though it might tip over; Mrs Hudson catches it, cradles it against her chest. Rights herself.
Standing too close to the door (listening?). Checking to see if my young man is visiting? If I am indisposed? Otherwise occupied? Odd. Tarts: purchased from the bakery down the street. Biscuits: homemade. A set of brownies with a glaze on top. Two strawberries. She spent time arranging it. (Why?)
“Goodness!” She fusses with the biscuits. Attempts to rearrange them into their original order through the cellophane. Nervous. Not a regular visit. Has something to say. (Plate: possibly from a charity shop? Ancient, broken twice: a plate to give away. Not expecting it to be returned. For gifts. Gifts for bachelors. For me?) “So sorry, Sherlock, dear! I didn’t know you were in!”
“Just on my way out.” She’s dressed up a bit; her best shoes (black), new skirt (purple). Pressed shirt (violet). (Why all the effort?) Share my own news. “Serial killer.” Smile conspiratorially.
She smiles back and blushes, looks down, as though I’ve just said something off-colour. Waves her hand. “You and your serial killers.” A pause. “Is John going with you?”
“About to text him.” I am. The moment the door closes behind me, pavement under my feet, I will. Think of his face, a warm feeling rises in my stomach, thinking of him. Text him. Tell him where to meet me. Tell him it’s a serial killer.
“I just wanted to...” Mrs Hudson looks at her plate, then back up at me. “I’m sorry for yelling at you and John the other day. I shouldn’t have, it’s really none of my business.” Ah. An apology. (Should have guessed that. Apology for losing her temper. I’d nearly forgotten.)
“Quite all right.” Give her the faint smile that suggests that it is. (It’s fine. Of course it’s fine. It’s Mrs Hudson.)
“No, no. It’s not all right at all.” Sighs. Calculate: how much will I miss if I stop and talk to Mrs Hudson now? Consider. (Nothing.) They won’t move the body. Anderson will be afraid to. Lestrade will insist. Won’t be long. A few minutes. Like waiting for a taxi. (Am awfully fond of Mrs Hudson.) Study the pained look on her face. Needs to express something. To be forgiven. To set things right. Understood. (Have surely worn that expression myself recently. More than once.) Turn to the right, open the kitchen door. Motion to her to go through. An invitation. She accepts.
Kitchen is a disaster. She tuts out of habit, puts the plate down on the table. Sits. Sighs again.
Opportunity. Repair John’s reputation. (Make him more receptive to moving back in? It could. Worth a shot.) How much to tell her? What words to use?
“John wanted me to tell you,” I find myself pausing. Mrs Hudson looking up expectantly (hopefully). John wants me to tell her that he isn’t the monster she thinks he is. That he didn’t know he was leaving me (heartbroken) for Mary. That he tried to give me what he thought I wanted. Clear my throat. “In the past I had not,” (been honest? been brave? known the truth?) “made myself plain to him. We were not...” pause. Debate a variety of word choices. Can’t choose. Let Mrs Hudson assume a word of her choice. (We were not lovers? Were not Intimate?) Pause has gone on too long. “We were not. Prior to his marriage.”
“Well.” She huffs. Crosses her arms over her chest. “That’s no excuse, he must have known.”
“It was obvious, Sherlock! Obvious!” My emotional state, my desires, my deep-seated devotion to my one-time flatmate. Obvious? Only to Mrs Hudson, apparently. “I’m sorry, sweetheart, I just feel protective of you.” Sad, plaintive eyes. “I know how happy he makes you. It pains me to see you hurt. Abandoned. Left alone by someone you love so much.”
(How did she know? Clearly Mrs Hudson possesses deductive abilities that far surpass those of the average human.)
“It’s just not right.” She furrows her brow and shakes her head. “A heart as big as yours, broken, it’s a terrible thing.”
Unlike the rest of London, it has apparently never occurred to her that I might be classified (by some) as a sociopath, incapable of genuine emotion. Apparently Mycroft didn’t share my diagnoses with her over a cup of tea. (One person at least left in London who doesn’t know all my deepest secrets.) Mrs Hudson. A genius.
“Now, I know things are complicated, but...” She bites her lip. “Does he love you? Does he tell you so?”
Awkward. Blink. (Appropriate to answer? Are these matters private?) “Yes.”
She smiles. “Good.” Stands, adjusts the cellophane on the plate, protects her tarts. “Good. Then everything will be just fine. If you’ve got love, Sherlock, everything will be all right.”
Kiss her cheek. She squeezes my fingers. “Tell him he’s forgiven.” She pats my face with her warm hand. Rubs my elbow. Affection. Listen to her kitten heels against the stairs. “As long as he doesn’t leave you again.” She smiles at me, then ducks back into her flat.
Pull out my phone. Text John.
Mrs Hudson says all is forgiven. She may be a genius. Apparently all we need is love. SH
Down the stairs. Close the door behind me. Hail a taxi. Lestrade is waiting; a serial killer! Haven’t seen one of those in ages. Phone: John responds quickly. Must be bored. Rub my thumb over his name on the screen. John.
Great! Now that song is going to be in my head all day.
Song? Doesn’t matter.
Serial killer. Newham. Can you come? SH
Body perfectly posed, identical to the first. Both victims male, between the ages of twenty-three and twenty-four. Fingers splayed out with artificial (latex) webbing glued between them, and post-mortem slits cut along the sides of their throats (like gills). Found immersed in water. Legs bound together with cling film. Eyelids sliced off. Genitals pushed back into the body cavity via (post-mortem) incision (glued, not stitched). Cause of death: unknown.
Lestrade: pensive. Sally: perturbed. Anderson: distracted (eyes on Sally’s exposed calves). Knees free of damning evidence. Sally’s moved on. Look up: she’s eyeing me (distrustful). Defiant stance. Daring me to say something. I don’t. (No point.)
“Well?” Lestrade. Rubbing his thumbnail over his bottom lip. In the other hand he’s holding a manila envelope (photos of the previous crime scene). Don’t need them.
Compare the skin on the face and hands to the rest of the skin. Stand by the head. Darker; seen more sun. Rougher; often in the rain. Crouch down. Lidless eyes stare blankly up. Sign of a band worn around the head for an extended time. Marks of a hard hat. Pull his mouth open slightly; as expected. Broken teeth (three of them). Prone to violence. Probably fights outside the pub. Stand again. Adjust jacket. Marks on the ankles and the callouses on the feet. Swollen, pale, slightly twisted. Spent most of his adult life in boots. Probably steel-toed. Construction worker. Obvious. Phone. Open web browser. Search. Missing construction workers in the vicinity. News article: Jack Bailey. Photo. Match. Show Lestrade. “There’s your victim.”
Feel the striking absence of John’s ritual praise at moments like this. Lestrade studying the screen. Snatch it back. Text John.
Where are you? Need to determine cause of death. SH
Impatient. Wait for a response. Lestrade confers with Sally. Anderson still staring at her calves. Observe the body, attempt to construct. No marks indicating a struggle. No wounds. No broken bones. Nothing. Test the blood (takes too long). What?
Phone vibrates. Text. John.
20 min at most. Just got a taxi.
Disappointed. Twenty minutes? Too long.
No wounds. How would you dispatch a 23 yr old male without visible injury? SH
Perhaps John can help from a distance.
Not a question I’ve spent much time considering!
Perhaps not. Must institute a change in casual dinner conversation toward potential murder techniques. Keeps the brain limber.
Consider it now! SH
A pause. Observe the colour of the skin. Reddish. Ruddy. (What does ruddy imply?) Text. John considered, has a solution (fast). Burst of pride. (Knew he would.)
Any airway obstruction?
Tilt the head back; check. Clean. (Cleaned.) Evidence.
Airway has been scraped clean. Smells of vomit. SH
Certainly easier to deduce cause of death with John present. Lestrade, Anderson: hovering. Annoying. Another vibration in the palm of my hand. (Joy.) Text.
Could be that. Choked on his own vomit. Not a murder then? Alcohol poisoning?
Must be a murder. But skin isn’t bluish. Reddish. SH
Scan the body for puncture wounds. There must be one. Somewhere. Insides of the arms, hands, feet, where? Has to be one. Couldn’t have just waited for a violent drunk to drink himself to death. Too disorganised. Too haphazard. Reassuring buzz of another text.
Alcohol poisoning more likely then. Dehydrated. Get a urine sample. Doesn’t sound like murder.
Found it. Back of the neck. Injection from behind. Slowed reflexes. Inject lethal dose of alcohol into an alcoholic. Perfect.
Hurry up! SH
“I need a syringe.” Don’t bother to look up.
“No.” Lestrade. “No samples from here, we can take them at the mortuary.”
“You hardly need a syringe to prove your hypothesis, Sherlock.” Freeze. Mycroft. (Why? What is he doing here?) Phone vibrates. Text. Glance at the screen.
Traffic, Sherlock! I’m on my way!
Can practically feel the tapping of Mycroft’s umbrella against the pavement. The relentless beat of a Wagnerian opera.
Don’t want to look at him. Sitting in his ridiculous car. Ridiculous tinted windows. Ridiculous, silent driver behind bullet-proof glass. No assistant this time. Assassination vehicle. (Is he planning to assassinate me? Or preparing for my inevitable assassination of him?) Driving somewhere. Too blind with rage to work out where. (Where’s John?) Pull out my phone. Stare at it. Send a text. When John arrives at the (beautiful) crime scene, I’ll be gone.
I’ve been abducted. SH
No. No interest in this conversation. I have nothing to say to him.
He sighs. Like I’m seven again, and he’s fourteen, he’s more clever than me, more mature than me, knows more than me. He’s annoyed with me and I’m being trying. I know that sigh. I’m tired of that sigh. Can practically feel my lateral orbitofrontal cortex buzzing with neural activity. Anger. Blazing, uncontrollable rage. Welcome vibration on my phone.
Your brother, I presume? Are you ok?
Clutch at my phone; John. The only thing that’s keeping me sane. (He should be here; he’d take my hand, draw soothing circles on my palm. Take my chin, look me in the eye. Calming. John. My fixed point.) Take out his gun and shoot Mycroft between the eyes for me. (I love you, John.) Punch the keys with my thumbs. Lips are twitching.
I hate him. I may kill him. Be prepared to post bail. SH
“You have every right to be angry.” Unexpected, but the truth at least. “I must admit that...” uncharacteristic pause. He’s hesitating. Saying something difficult. What? “I was wrong.”
I have never heard him admit to being wrong before.
I have never known him to be wrong before.
“Wrong?” (The surprise of it looses my lips.) Where to begin. “Wrong to keep my personal medical files for decades after they should have been destroyed? After our mother ordered them destroyed? Or wrong for sharing them?” Finally look up at him. Can barely contain my rage. Feel my phone creak in my hands, gripping it so tight I may break it. “Sharing them with my competition?”
“She was never your competition.” He says it like he’s tired of it. Being wrong does nothing for him; looks like he’s gained about a stone since I last saw him. (So. Guilt weighs (roughly) a stone then?)
“Did you show those notes to John as well, so he would always fear me, Mycroft? Keep his distance? Or were you hoping he would walk away from me forever?”
“Of course not.” Shuts his eyes. Take a deep breath. “I was trying to help you, Sherlock.”
The unlikeliness of it nearly makes me laugh. “Help me?”
“Believe it or not. Yes. I was trying to help you. I was trying to get them to understand. To understand what you were capable of. To not expect more from you than you could give. I was trying to ensure,” he stops, purses his lips. Distaste. “I was trying to ensure that you would keep someone who loves you in your life, Sherlock. So that you wouldn’t break him. That’s what I was trying to do.”
Break him? At what point was John in any danger of being broken? “Why?”
Another sigh. “Because you’re my brother, Sherlock. And though you may struggle to fathom this, I care about you and I want you to get what you want. I want you to be happy.”
Happy. Convincing Mary (and trying to convince John) that I am a psychopath: in what context could that possibly make me happy? “Lying about me was going to make me happy?”
“As I said.” Mycroft’s voice has gone flat. “I was wrong.”
Twice. Mycroft admitting it twice in one conversation (twice in one lifetime seems generous. Until now: unthinkable). Certainly he was wrong; a bizarre and impossible series of actions with motives that cannot possibly, under any circumstances, map against them. Telling Mary (telling John) that I am barely human, a monster: John’s uncertainty (his faith, his bravery, his attraction for impossible risks) clearly not something Mycroft had counted on (or had he?). Growing closer to me, putting his heart (love has made me giddy with metaphors) in my monstrous hands, with my (erroneous) diagnoses in the back of his head. Mycroft is fiddling with his umbrella. The car turns a corner. He sighs again. Doesn’t look at me. “I was wrong to believe it was true.”
Mycroft. Annoyed older brother, disdainful looks, slamming doors in my face, laughing at me. Dragging me out of dubiously legal clubs, destroying my collection of tinctures and hard-won substances, pushing me into bedrooms with locks on the outside. Mummy (her love always unconditional) hadn’t believed it (wouldn’t, couldn’t), but Mycroft is (always was) different. Guarded looks. Doubts. Assuming the worst. (No wonder.) All this time, naively, thought brotherly love might have given me the benefit of the doubt. That Mummy’s word on the matter was law (except for the gnawing doubt in me, the gnawing fear.) Already hate him, already wish we weren’t related; didn’t think he could still hurt me.
Didn’t even realise I still wanted him to believe anything good or kind about me. To close his eyes and believe the unbelievable. I suppose I did. (Another betrayal: bigger than the first.) He had the same doubts I did. (Suppose I can’t blame him for that. But I will anyway.) He believed me to be incapable (I believed the same thing).
What do you do to make a psychopath happy? (Lower the expectations of everyone around him to avoid him breaking them into tiny pieces and rubbing his hands with glee?)
“I’m sorry.” Look at his face. He does indeed look sorry. Sorrier than anything; a sorry excuse. For a brother. For family. There has been nothing unconditional in my life since Mummy died. Barring the unconditional annoyance that is Mycroft. Everyone assumed the worst. (Including me.)
“You surprised me, Sherlock. You surprised everyone.” And what is the big surprise? To love and be loved in return? Such a simple thing. Something anyone can do. Mycroft: believes I can solve the most complicated crimes, but am incapable of sharing a simple emotion? (Suppose I surprised myself too.)
Mycroft smiles. “It’s a sizable accomplishment, surprising me. Exceeding my expectations. You understand that. I’m,” he pauses. Hesitating, or pausing for effect. “I’m proud of you.” Roll my eyes. Mycroft pulls a case from under the seat. “So I brought you a little something. A gift. A peace offering.” An attempt to mollify me? A balm on our brotherly rift? Whatever it is, no matter how expensive it is, I’m duty-bound as the (wronged) younger brother to destroy it instantly. He places the case on his lap and opens it. Turns it toward me.
A violin. A little worse for wear; the finish a bit rough in places, some nicks and cuts. Hasn’t been as well-cared for as it should have been. Some water damage. Wait: No. Not just a violin. (My God.) Italian. Amati. Seventeenth century. (Impossible.) A masterpiece. (I cannot possibly destroy it.) Nicolo Amati, grand pattern. A grand Amati. Incredibly rare. Amazing. (Priceless.)
“I hope you’ll forgive the heavy-handed metaphor.” A weak smile. “A beautiful instrument that hasn’t been as well-loved as it should have been. But a beautiful instrument still.” He passes the open case to me (faith).
In my first act as a non-psychopath (in the eyes of my dear brother) I will not destroy this (stunning) violin. (Will have to find something else to destroy. Perhaps his car.) Run my fingers across the body. Unbelievable. Trace the (perfect) sound holes. The pegbox. The scroll. Lift it from its (nondescript) case. Caress the upper treble corner, where a drop of water was left to sit. Stroke the wound. Wrap my hand around the middle bouts and feel the weight of it. So beautiful.
Mycroft says nothing. Just watches me. I should say something, thank you, but I can’t bring any words into my mouth. Too much else there. (Sadness, disappointment, bitterness, hope.)
Have no idea how much time has passed when I notice the car has stopped moving. Look out the window. Baker Street. (Home.)
“You should know.” Mycroft. More wheels turning within wheels? (Of course.) “About twenty minutes ago Mary received word that a job she applied for seven years ago has come open again, and her application has been accepted. A job at the Bodleian.” The Bodleian? Mycroft is sending Mary to Oxford? “It’s the job of a lifetime, the job she’s always wanted. Of course she’ll accept it.”
“I believe in happy endings.” He knits his fingers together.
Stand by the window; watch the rain. Play. The feel of it, the music (Mendelssohn) reverberating through me. The bow (pliable, perfect), the instrument (the most stunning tone I’ve ever heard). Every other violin, every other bow: Plato’s cave. Shadows of this bow, this violin. Nothing I’ve played has ever sounded so real. So complete. Can hear the voice of the wood (of my fingers, particularities of each shift, each movement, even vibration of my muscles, my bones). Close my eyes.
No idea how much time passes.
Hear the door open (rain pounding outside). Taxi speeding off. Hear it shut again (rattle of glass). Hear something heavy deposited on the tile. A coat shrugged off, hung by the door. A pause. (He’s listening. I’m playing. Still Mendelssohn.) Feet on the stairs. (John’s feet, of course. I’d know them anywhere. His sure step. No limp. Never again.) Opens the door to the sitting room.
Turned toward the window. Hear the beat of the rain, the wind lashing against the house. Play. Eyes shut. He doesn’t want to disturb me; takes a seat in his armchair. The sound of something metal placed on the table; next to it, something plastic and flat. (His gun; his computer.) He leans back. His eyes either open, or shut: can’t tell. He sits still. He listens.
The realisation almost interrupts the music (Adagio non troppo). Almost open my eyes in surprise (but don’t). Relish the thought instead. His gun. His computer. The heavy bag downstairs. A warmth in my stomach that travels up through my chest (through that impossible new organ there) and through my fingers into the music. No more Clapton. No more Mary. John has moved back in.
In a few minutes (three at most), the piece will end and I will open my eyes, turn, watch John sitting there. His eyes (if closed) will open too, will meet mine. He’ll tell me the music was beautiful (it is). He won’t notice the new violin (unlikely he can tell one violin from another). I’ll take off the shoulder rest and put it (lovingly) in its (nondescript) case. He will want to tell me what he’s done; won’t know that I’ve already deduced it. (Or perhaps he will know. Knows me well enough. But he’ll want to tell me anyway. Say the words so there’s no confusion.) I’ve come back. I won’t leave you again. Smile at the thought of hearing it. (Two and a half minutes.) How will I answer? Smile. Can’t think of any words to suit. Maybe I will, in two minutes. If I don’t he will understand.
Next he’ll stand. What’s most likely? Turn toward the kitchen, ask me if I want a cup of tea. Thirsty work, moving out of Clapton. (No beer in the fridge.) He’ll notice the plate of biscuits and tarts on the table. Ask about it. I’ll explain: gift from Mrs Hudson. The mark of her blessing. He’ll make a joke; happy announcements or gossip. We’ll both laugh. He’ll take one of the tarts, and offer me one. I’ll decline.
Or will he instead ignore the kitchen, ignore his thirst and thoughts of tea, and walk toward me? Take my hand? No. Embrace me? Kiss me. Kiss my neck. Tell me he loves me. (I will reciprocate.) He will smile at me. Will he take hold of my fingers (two fingers, lightly, in his palm) and take me to the bedroom? Or ask me if I’m hungry, if I’m eating, if I’m still on a case?
One way or another. Tea, tarts. Declarations. The immediate future. All will follow, in whichever order John chooses. But all will follow (eventually). For now I will play, with John listening (loving both the music and me). Only a minute (or so) left. And then it will begin.
And that is it! On the whole, let me take a moment to thank trinaest, who helped me through the whole thing, and listened to me blather on while I tried to work out what was going on behind the scenes, Elvichar (Elise), this story's careful and long-suffering britpicker, for staying up late on too many nights. Gelishan has provided incalculably useful violin-picking and musical support. Thanks to everyone who has read and commented, and engaged in crazy back-and-forth commentary with me, because without that I would be motivation-less and probably idea-less. Finally, thanks to Google docs, for providing the perfect location for me to write and share. And you: have you read this far? My love forever!