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The Letter in the Wall

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Dear Mrs. Hudson,

You're probably wondering how this package came to be hidden in the wall behind your mirror. I expect you've already sifted through its contents and taken a guess at its approximate age. I also expect you're wondering how your name came to be on a letter so old. This isn't easy to explain, but I'll do my best to make you understand.

This is John Watson - yes, the very same. By now Sherlock and I will have been missing for about a week, if your workers came on time. I expect Detective Inspector Lestrade has already been by to question you. I hope we haven't worried you too badly. You always looked out for us so. I hope you know how we appreciated it.

The thing is, Mrs. Hudson, I placed this package in your wall when the last landlady to remodel this bathroom was putting in the fixtures - in July of 1888.

My God. 1888. I still find it strange to write out the date, even though I've had over a year to adjust to our new era. I'm getting up to pour myself a cup of tea. Why don't you get yourself one as well, before I begin my story? Then it will be like we're just chatting over tea, like we used to. I do miss our afternoon chats. (I even miss the makeover shows. That can be our secret.)

 Got your tea? Good. Here goes.

Sherlock began obsessing over this man they call the Doctor during a case we took in Whitechapel. It was a double disappearance, a shop owner and her assistant taken after closing, nothing else missing, all entrances locked tight and the door of the stock room blocked off  from the inside. Very odd - so, right up Sherlock's street, of course. The scene painted an unnerving picture: a panicked chase from the front to the perceived safety of the stock room, scarves and purses dropped along the way, crates and furniture shoved haphazardly against the door. A small telly in the corner was still on when the Met showed up, tuned to the shop’s CCTV. They must have been watching their attacker on that screen, waiting for an opportunity to escape. They never got it. 

The owner’s boyfriend said she’d never been the sort to have enemies, but when pressed, he mentioned a strange interaction she’d had recently with a man called the Doctor. Odd fellow with hair going in all directions kept coming around their flat, he said, trying to warn her of something. Sherlock tented his fingers under his chin as we walked back to the main road, his eyes alight with that brilliant deductive glee he gets in the face of a new challenge. 

“The Doctor,” he enunciated, smiling wolfishly at the passing cars. “I’ve heard that name before.”

“So what?” I said - I confess, my mind was already on the takeaway I was planning to have for dinner. “There are loads of doctors. I’m a doctor.” 

“Yes, John, but you’re a doctor of the indefinite article sort. This is definite article proper noun - not a doctor, the Doctor.”

I asked him what that meant for our case, but he did not answer. His eyes were far away, raised toward the cold, clear evening sky. A moment later, he was dashing down the pavement with his mobile out, tapping away without a word as I hurried to keep up. 

We never did find the missing shop owner and her assistant. I know now that we never had any chance. But you know Sherlock - once he gets hold of an idea, he claws at it until it’s in pieces on the floor. 

The first forty-eight hours of the case were normal enough - the usual round of questioning victims’ families without the Met’s permission, the utter lack of sleep, me failing to convince Sherlock to eat a damn meal when the trail seemed cold. There were no possible leads aside from this Doctor character - a vague, tangential story of a man with no reason to be a part of this case. Sherlock, of course, couldn’t stop thinking about it. By the third day after those women had gone missing, he’d turned up a few dozen firsthand accounts of the Doctor, ranging from blog entries to blurry photos to alien abduction support forums. Each account dealt with some sort of violent event or disappearance, always in conjunction with a visit from the so-called Doctor. Wherever the Doctor went, it seemed, unexplained events followed.

“Aliens? Really?” I said as I watched him pin the first printed articles to the wall of the sitting room. 

“Don’t dismiss the observational power of lunatics, John,” he answered. “Once you’ve eliminated the impossible, whatever remains—”

“Yes, I know,” I told him, pinching the bridge of my nose. “But—you mean to tell me you don’t think aliens fit into the ‘impossible’ category?” 

My friend stepped down from the sofa with a flourish, his eyes flashing. Grabbing a folder from the table, he handed me two short stacks of photocopies and urged me to read. The first stack were photocopied letters in tightly packed cursive, the edges of the pages weathered with age. They were signed with the same name as the shop owner, but the date at the top of the letters was from the early 1930’s. 

“So she had the same name as our victim,” I said upon finishing the first of the letters. I can’t for the life of me remember the name now. I’ve forgotten so many things that once seemed important in the last year and a half, I hardly feel like the same person sometimes.

“She is our victim,” Sherlock said, rounding close to me so his head all but rested on my shoulder. He pointed to key phrases. “Look at her handwriting compared to the notes we saw at the shop. Look at her language - this here! Clearly contemporary dialect. And this - ‘Keep calm and carry on?’ First printed in 1939.”

“And popularized by design blogs in the past two years,” I said, leaning in to reread. “Overdone.” Sherlock seemed surprised at that, but I suppose he’d been too busy with the case to notice you’d been involving me in your redecoration efforts downstairs. 

“And then,” he said, “we have this.” He grabbed the pages from my hands and shuffled to the second stack - black and white photos. “Stills from the surveillance video. This is what our victims were watching while they hid in the store room.” 

The image was focused on the front room of the shop, looking out from behind the sales counter toward the front doors. Standing near the door were three statues - angels, wings curled, hands pressed to their downturned faces as if crying. I flipped to the next photo. The statues had advanced to the edge of the sales counter. I flipped to the third photo. The statues stood behind the counter now, and their positions had changed, the one in the lead tilting its still-covered face directly at the security camera. 

“I don’t understand,” I said. 

Sherlock clamped his fingers around my wrist, and I realized my hand had been shaking. “Neither do I,” he said, so quietly I nearly didn’t catch it. 

I still remember the warmth of that touch, how Sherlock felt like an anchor in a moment when nothing made sense. He took his pages back and let me go too quickly, leaving me shaking again.

Within the week, he had the entire front wall of our flat plastered with printouts and blurry photographs of different men that witnesses had identified as the Doctor - and over and over, the image of a blue police box in the background.

“It’s like a bogeyman story,” he muttered as his eyes darted across the wall. “The Doctor comes and people die.”

He stopped sleeping except when his body dragged him forcibly onto the sofa for an hour. I had to hide our modem and withhold its location to get him to eat. (God, I miss the internet.) By the time Lestrade brought us the next missing persons case, I was beginning to think I was losing Sherlock to that bogeyman. 

The second case was much like the first - the boyfriend, this time, disappeared from his locked flat, his keys still in a dish by the door. His mobile lay on the floor, a text from an unknown number still open on the screen.

It read: “They’re there. Don’t blink. Run.” 

I remember how Sherlock’s lips pulled tight as he nudged the unlocked bedroom window open and leaned out over the fourth floor ledge. 

“They’re still here,” he told me. “Out there. Waiting.” 

I didn’t look for myself. As afraid as I was at the time that my friend was losing his mind, the idea that he may be right was worse. When we left the scene, he kept looking behind us, nervous in a way I’d rarely seen him before. I stuck close and dared one glance back at the corner. On that ledge, I saw a handful of stone figures, inartistically spaced and listing toward the side of the building where we’d exited.   

“We have to find the Doctor,” Sherlock said that night. “He’s at the center of this.” 

Soon he was combing through unsolved missing persons cases from the last five years, every one to which Lestrade would let him have access. You saw the state of our sitting room near the end - like a paper bomb had gone off. Every case that had potential ties to the Doctor, Sherlock covered some surface in our flat with it. That final day, I came home to find him seated in the center of the floor like a statue himself, surrounded by a kingdom of evidence, all of it useless. His eyes were rimmed with hollows. 

I trod across the scattered papers and knelt in front of him, taking the loose fabric of his shirt in hand. “Sherlock,” I begged, “give this up. Please.” 

He said nothing, lost so far in his own head that the brilliant light in his features was snuffed out. I couldn’t stand it. I left, taking the tube out to a Thai place we both liked and sitting at a table by myself until my mind and heart stopped racing. 

I’m not sure how to explain what happened next, and I expect I never will. I will give you the facts as I know them, and you may interpret their meaning however you think is best.

It was dark when I returned to Baker Street, the traffic beginning to lessen. I was just coming up to 221 when I spotted, on the corner, a structure that hadn’t been there before. It was hard to tell the color in the dark, but I knew the shape of it, having walked past drawings and photographs of it every day for the past few weeks: a police box. A thin man with wild hair stood in front of it, staring down the road at me. 

My mobile beeped. 

I wheeled around, scanning the street, and saw them, on the rooftop across the street: the outlines of statues in the dying light, statues that had never been there before. I broke into a run.

Sherlock was crouched over the coffee table with my laptop, his expression alert again. “One of the Met disappeared the day after our shopkeeper went missing,” he said, talking so fast I couldn’t get a word in. “Vanished from work, last time anyone saw him he was reviewing evidence. Lestrade emailed me the security footage from the case - this was very likely the last thing that officer saw before he went missing. I’ve watched it five times now, and once I synced it up with the footage from inside the store room, it began to make sense. Look, John! Look at the women’s eyes! Look at the static on the recording! ‘Don’t blink’ - it makes sense now. The statues move when the women blink, don’t you see? Whatever they are, whatever they do to people, they can only do it when no one’s watching!” 

We were staring at the image of two terrified faces and three slouched statues on the laptop screen when the windows swung open. 

In the dark of the flat, the angels stood out as silhouettes, two by the windows, one beside the coffee table, only feet from us. I crashed backwards, falling against my chair, and Sherlock sprang upright. For a moment, everything went still as stone. Sherlock said my name once, then again, louder. 

We must have blinked at the same time.

When my eyelids lifted, the angels’ shapes had shifted, crouching over us, arms upraised, their faces exposed like horrifying masks. I don’t have words to describe those faces, Mrs. Hudson. Afghanistan and those stone faces - these are the things that cycle through my nightmares now.

One of the angels had its stone fingers clutching Sherlock’s collar, its open mouth a hair’s breadth from his nose. 

“John,” he said again, and his voice was low and strangely calm, like it had been months earlier at the pool. “Run.” 

I pushed myself to my feet and stood beside him, my eyes stinging with the effort of staying open. “No. I’m not leaving without you.” 

His eyes still staring wide into the face in front of him, Sherlock reached for me. 

I blinked.

I was lying in an alley, still in my jacket and jeans, and the air smelled so strongly of horse manure and smog that I nearly choked for a moment. In films that deal with time travel, the heroes always have the reality of their leap hammered home by the date on a newspaper; I never needed that. The air told me this wasn’t my London. 

The man lying beside me with his fingernails digging into my wrist confirmed it. “At least a century,” Sherlock whispered, staring up at the walls to our sides. “Victorian detailing in the stonework, construction less than a decade old. 1870s to 1890s.” 

We lay there for a long time, listening to the bustle of a very different city beyond those walls. After a while, Sherlock whispered that he was giving up his search for the Doctor. He never let go of my arm. 

I checked my mobile for the last time that night as we traded the items of value we had on us for money. It contained a message from an unknown number, reading: “Fixed point in time. Nothing I can do. I’m sorry.” 

The rest of the story is rather dull, I’m afraid. I’m grateful for Sherlock’s wit, as he managed to talk us into a number of things - 221B Baker Street to stay in, for one thing (the landlady is not as pleasant a companion as you, but she doesn’t mind helping with the housework). I have joined a local surgery with credentials Sherlock forged for me, and he has been accepting paid cases to make rent. Neither of us has the resources we were used to, and I am utterly bereft of people who understand my movie references, but we’ve adapted. We’re getting by. More than getting by, I sometimes think - Sherlock thrives on the admiration of others, and as the modern man in the room full of Scotland Yard detectives who have one sixtieth of Lestrade’s team’s knowledge of forensics on a good day.

I’ve taken to writing fictionalized versions of our more interesting cases. There’s been some interest, and I’m happy to report a few of my stories have even been published! I could kiss my old therapist for suggesting I start blogging.

When I told Sherlock the pen name I’d chosen to publish under, he went white as a sheet and then burst out in a laugh so loud I expected the flat to shake. As I stood there staring at him, he grabbed my shirt and leaned into me, dropping his face to my shoulder.

“That name,” he said against my collar. “My mother had the complete collected works of a man by that name in her library. Mycroft and I were named after two of his characters.”

Ice washed down my spine. My knees buckled. Suddenly the two of us were huddled together on the floor, clutching each other’s coats and giggling like it was a crime scene. Neither of us has ever said the words aloud, but at that moment we both knew: we are never getting home. Our lives are a fixed loop. From the moment he glanced up at me in the lab at St. Bart’s and asked, “Afghanistan or Iraq?” that day a year ago--one hundred and twenty-two years from now--we were promised this fate.

Maybe it was the shock of that revelation or panic, sitting there on the floor gripping Sherlock like my life depended on it, but that’s when I kissed him.

I’m laughing as I picture your face right now, Mrs. Hudson. I can just see you curled over this letter in your reading chair by the fireplace, saying, “Finally!” to an empty room. I know, I should have listened when you told me to put the moves on him. I was trying so hard not to think about him like that at the time. I thought I’d screw things up between us. Sherlock points out that starting a relationship with another man under Victorian anti-sodomy laws should concern me more than the potential for an awkward breakup with my flatmate, and he’s right, of course, but I still worry sometimes. He’s the only piece of home I have left.

Sherlock will tell me nothing about this author his mother loved so, except to reassure me that both the man and his protagonist survived well into the twentieth century. When I worry, he squeezes my shoulder and whispers, “Apiculture.” It’s his plan to retire together to Sussex to lie in the sun together and keep bees. The idea always makes me smile. Why bees? I have no idea.

Sherlock informs me that he keeps--kept--a money clip taped to the inside of his skull in case of emergencies. That should be a few months’ rent; it’s yours. In this package, you’ll find notes for my sister Harry, DI Lestrade, and Sherlock’s older brother, Mycroft. Please see that these reach them. I’ve also included a copy of my first novel. Sherlock insists a first edition will be worth something in 2011. I find it hard to imagine anyone remembering my work a century from now, but people do seem to enjoy detective stories.

He’s calling for me now. This seems as good a place as any to end it.

We are safe. We are happy. Please don’t worry about us.

I hope the bathroom makeover goes well. The blue tile you showed me looked lovely with either of the wallpapers you were considering.

 

Very sincerely yours,

Dr. John H. Watson