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A Goose Quill Dipped in Venom

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Baker Street at ten pm on a freezing winter’s night was much the same as it always was, that is to say, hectic. Crammed with people going about their business, bursting with life and activity, Baker Street was redolent with purpose and achievement.

From an open window in the modest flat above an unpretentious little sandwich shop, Mozart played on a rather good violin poured out into Baker Street like a flash flood. In the bedroom of the flat below, an elderly lady stirred and turned over in her sleep but did not wake.

Hours later, Mozart had morphed into Vivaldi, Mendelssohn and currently Bach. Sherlock Holmes played on, even though the street outside had quietened, the people now drifting home, tired and played out.

Sherlock played on, his body no longer the biological container for his brain but one complete, perfect resonator for the music, in this case, the Chaconne from the Partita in D. He played, the double-stopping jarring through his bones, arcing through his body, through the soles of his feet like so much lightning electricity. He was on the sixth consecutive rendition without so much as pausing for breath.

“Bravo! Well done indeed.”

The tone was mildly sardonic and the slow handclap perfectly timed, responding to the end of the work but forestalling a further repetition. Sherlock’s bow paused mid-arc, changing trajectory to sink limply at his side as he turned an expressionless mask on the intruder.

“Still able to tear the heartstrings of the unwary, I see, although a little variation to the programme at this late stage would be beneficial to the ears of your listeners.”

The newcomer bared his teeth in something that might have passed for a smile at another time or place and moved purposefully through the debris towards the open window.

“Getting a little chilly in here,” he remarked, closing the sash firmly and rubbing his hands together.

The temperature had dropped like a stone over the past hour. Sherlock had scarcely noticed, but it was hardly a surprise, it being the middle of January. He lowered the violin stiffly and climbed off the coffee table, his breath making white clouds in the frigid air. He stared at the intruder impassively.

“What are you doing here, Mycroft?” he demanded.

The other man’s smile did not falter in the slightest. “Visiting you in your new abode,” was the smooth reply. He turned around on his heel, taking in every detail of the living room.

Mycroft Holmes was immaculate as usual in Saville Row bespoke pinstripe tailored precisely to fit his (currently) slender physique. Sherlock knew that his brother owned an unspecified number of identical suits, all carefully tailored to fit whichever phase of his yo-yo dieting he happened to be in at any given time. Mycroft pointed the tip of his umbrella at a skull nestling innocently on the mantle between a Japanese folding knife and what looked like a Medieval manuscript.

“Still using him as a paperweight, I see,” he remarked. “I’ve always thought it rather disrespectful.”

“Yes, well, you never could mind your own business, could you?” Sherlock pushed the violin carefully into its case, fitting the bow into the lid and slamming it shut with elaborate negligence just to make the point.

“Why are you here?” Sherlock repeated. “Look, I did everything you wanted; I’m clean, I’m on the wagon, I’m over the age of majority. I have no further need of a nursemaid, Mycroft.”

“Of course not,” the other replied mildly, “I wouldn’t dream of suggesting it. I was merely curious about your new home,” he poked at something too close to his polished shoe with the tip of his furled umbrella, “and as I was passing I decided to drop in.”

“It’s two thirty am,” sneered Sherlock.

Mycroft nodded. “Indeed,” he replied. “Clearly Bach is apposite for all times of day. I hope your neighbours agree; not to mention your landlady. I brought you a present.”

Sherlock rolled his eyes. “Go away, Mycroft,” he said tiredly.

“It’s in the kitchen,” his brother persisted. He glanced around the living room one more time. “Perfectly suitable,” he remarked, nodding faintly, “Now do try to avoid being evicted, Sherlock, there’s a good chap. It causes no end of trouble for the legal department.”

Mycroft nodded pleasantly and turned on his heel to exit the flat as silently as he had entered it. Sherlock scowled mightily at his brother’s departing back with little or no effect. Curiosity winning out over resentment, he stalked into the kitchen to find his jumble of experimental materials had been carefully moved to one side of the kitchen table and in their place was a small tray containing milk, sugar, a Chatsworth filter teapot, a packet of English Breakfast loose tea from the London Tea Company and two china mugs decorated with illustrations taken from the Bayeux tapestry. Sherlock made a sound of disgust but examined one of the mugs with a thoughtful expression. He shook his head and returned it to the tray.

 

The temperature had dropped another three degrees Celsius and ice was forming on the inside of the windows at 221B. Wrapped in his great coat, curled in on himself at one end of the sofa against the cold, Sherlock was reading a treatise on Baroque clarinets. His bare feet stuck out from over-long sweat pants. A clear fluid dripped from an array of glass tubes into two buckets situated in the hearth. Periodically, he would look up from his reading to check the liquid levels against the time on his phone.

“I thought you only moved in yesterday afternoon!” The visitor’s voice rasped with years of cigarette smoking and shouting over loud noise. It also betrayed its origins in the Estuary region of Kent. “Did you know your front door was left on the latch?”

Sherlock rolled his eyes: interfering brothers. “Good morning to you too, Inspector,” he growled through the thick wool of his collar. “Do come in.”

Detective Inspector Lestrade knew his business. His expression did not even flicker as he crossed the threshold, carefully avoiding the unidentified piles of flotsam and jetsam. Peering gloomily at the empty grate, he beat his hands against his upper arms and shivered. Something caught on the leg of his trousers; he skipped reflexively away.

“Bloody hell, Sherlock,” he muttered, narrowly avoiding a skewering on a jagged glass edge. “Why didn’t you leave that stuff in the bins at your previous place?”

“The Council cleansing department won’t take radioactive waste – I asked them,” Sherlock relied waving an indifferent hand.

“Radioactive…?” Lestrade bit back on an expletive and shifted his feet, ignoring the way the carpet sucked at the soles of his shoes.

Sherlock looked at him without enthusiasm. “I assume,” he began, enunciating slowly and carefully after a moment of silence,” that you have some reason for calling at this ridiculous hour – other than to remark upon the décor, of course.”

Lestrade gave his surroundings a final once-over and shook his head. He took out his notebook.

“Murder, Hampstead, shotgun,” he said succinctly.

“Sounds boring,” Sherlock replied, returning to his book.

Lestrade sighed. “Will you come?” he asked doggedly.

Sherlock narrowed his eyes. “There’s something else, isn’t there?” he said. “Something you don’t like, am I right?”

Lestrade nodded. “It just – feels wrong,” he said reluctantly.

Sherlock made a disgusted sound. “Hunches are for amateurs,” he said.

Lestrade closed his eyes briefly. “I know it’s the middle of the night, Sherlock,” he persisted, “but will you come?”

Sherlock sighed petulantly. “Who’s on forensics?” he asked.

Lestrade gave a faint grimace. “It’s Anderson,” he replied.

Sherlock made a brief sound of disgust. “He won’t work with me,” he said.

“Well, he won’t be your assistant,” Lestrade replied. “Will you come?”

Sherlock rose abruptly from the sofa.

“Not in a police car,” he said, moving rapidly out of the room and down the short corridor.

Lestrade took an involuntary step backwards as Sherlock whirled past. “I’ll take that as a yes, shall I?” he muttered, then shouted “and put some bloody clothes on!”

“I’ll be right behind you.”

The words floated back along the landing.

“You don’t know the address.”

“Who says I don’t?”

 

Tennyson Gardens was a leafy avenue with good street lighting damped down by freezing fog which reached cold, clammy tendrils around the moon, the car headlight and the exposed skin of the unwary; Lestrade shivered. Sherlock strode confidently ahead prowling like a sniffer dog. He stopped by a red brick Victorian pile, exquisitely converted and expensively decorated. Despite the late hour, it was lit up like a Christmas tree.

Lestrade nodded at the open front door. “That’s it,” he said unnecessarily.

Sherlock ignored him, sweeping up the neat path, the stone steps and into the marble-tiled vestibule. Immediately, he stopped, holding up a gloved hand to prevent Lestrade from following him.

A faint odour, almost imperceptible; Sherlock knew he could identify it given time.

Narrow, Victorian windowsills, newly painted; new timber on the windows, must have rotted away, too far gone to rescue – house was allowed to fall into ruin at some stage; stained glass, expertly restored, much of it replaced with modern materials; marble tiling original but treated for porosity – that’s the smell. Staircase completely replaced – Sherlock frowned. Another staircase added leading down to what used to be the cellar, now a luxury basement flat, no doubt; lights blazing on the first floor but only one on the ground, that in the room leading off to the left. No lights in the basement.

Sherlock took off up the staircase like a greyhound out of the gate.

“Oi!” Lestrade protested, “Sherlock! It’s a crime scene, get suited up or Forensics will have your arse in a sling!”

The heel of Sherlock’s Edward Green bespoke shoe disappeared around the turn of the stairs. Swearing under his breath, Lestrade threw on his own protective gear and marched up the stairs. Sherlock was on the threshold of the relevant apartment, pale eyes snapping like twin camera lenses as he rolled on a pair of latex gloves.

Now this is something else; stylish, expensive, newly restored like the rest of the house. Brass fittings on the front door; custom-made William Morris wallpaper, hand painted; that cupboard isn’t original but it’s made out of reclaimed timber to fool the unwary; china shade on the overhead lamp throws out a dim, diffused light – a tinted bulb, or just low wattage? Carpet, fitted, very dense weave, expensive; feels very close and cocooned in here, all the sound damped by the carpet and the woven hangings on the walls, Chinese work, if I’m not mistaken, and when am I ever? A very nice oil painting – old fashioned style but recent work with an antique gilt frame – should be able to clean off the blood spray without too much damage. Not so sure about the wall around it though.

Lestrade held himself perfectly still knowing that if he so much as twitched, Sherlock would snarl like a cat. His throat closed momentarily at the sight of the corpse – headless, missing most of one shoulder and upper arm, completely drained of blood – even though this was his second sighting of it. He watched the other man take in every detail of the crime scene with the precision of a camera.

Towelling bathrobe and not much else; ready for bed then, asleep? Killer must have been known to him- far too late to open the door to a stranger; a lover, perhaps? No nightclothes – was this habitual? How efficient is the heating system? An old building, but a very high quality conversion. No reliable data as yet, preliminary reports will tell. Faint floral/fruity odour – shampoo/soap/perfume? Not a man’s fragrance. Not much doubt about the cause of death; must have been point-blank range, two shots in quick succession, both slightly to the left and below the face – some serious animosity here, a desire to obliterate. Splatter pattern consistent with no 7 or 7½ shot, 28 gauge –

Sherlock snapped his fingers at Lestrade until the other produced a cheap plastic biro from an inner pocket, then he crouched to poke at a spent shell with its end.

Sherlock sat back on his haunches and frowned at the corpse. Lestrade watched as he methodically catalogued every detail, committing it carefully to memory, deliberately detaching himself from the horror of the coagulating lake of blood, the burst of gelatinous brain tissue and fragments of bone, the pathetic waste of something that until the last few hours had been a living, breathing person.

“Oh, Jesus!”

Lestrade more felt than heard the disgusted murmur from his chief forensics officer. Anderson glared at Sherlock’s back with intense dislike but the weariness round his eyes and the pallor of his skin told its own story: this had not been a pleasant experience for any of his team.

“It’s bad enough here without this freak gloating over the remains,” he spat at Lestrade.

“If you can’t stand the heat, Anderson, get out of the kitchen,” Sherlock intoned without missing a beat. He stared unblinkingly at a sticky patch of drying blood near the bedroom door.

“Oh, come on!” The man flailed, trying to gather the shreds of his dignity. “No one walks in on a body with its head blown off at close range only two hours ago without being briefly reminded of their last meal – it’s only natural.”

“It may well be natural for you,” Sherlock replied, examining the skirting board minutely, “but fortunately for the rest of us, my own mind is capable of holding on to more than one idea at a time. And it’s three hours.”

Sherlock’s tone was haughty and dismissive and Lestrade laid a heavy hand on Anderson’s shoulder as he watched the man ball his fists.

“That’s enough, Sherlock,” he said. “Now have you got anything or are you just passing the time down there?”

“What do you mean, three hours?” Anderson spat in outrage. “You can’t possibly know that.”

Sherlock glanced briefly up at Lestrade and rolled his eyes. He reached for what remained of the body’s left arm and rolled up the cuff, displaying an analogue watch.

“Stopped,” he said, “at twenty six minutes past midnight.”

“Battery could have run out,” protested Anderson, “Could have stopped at any time.” Sherlock nodded seriously.

“Yes, it could,” he replied, “but considering that this is a kinetic watch and doesn’t contain a battery, I think it rather unlikely, don’t you? The electrical generator was smashed by a stray pellet – that’s how I know the time of death.”

Sherlock glanced briefly at the right arm; the cuff of the bathrobe sat a good three inches above the man’s wrist. He tried to tug the cuff down, but the fabric sprang back to its original position as soon as he loosed his hold. Sherlock rose to his feet and turned to Lestrade.

“Alright, what have you got?” The older man stood, arms folded across his chest; Sherlock ran an absent finger across his bottom lip.

“Victim is male, late thirties, around 10 stone, good level of fitness,” he began in a low, intense monotone. “The calluses of a firearms user and his muscular development indicate current membership of the armed forces or very recently discharged. Tan lines at the wrists and neck but not chest or arms tell me recent service abroad not recreation. The opulent decoration of this apartment together with its exclusive location, however, suggest an independent income – the rent must be expensive, the value, if he owns it, immense. He may have been on leave of absence – not enough data yet. Rank is not clear from the body itself, but the doctor’s bag carefully stowed in the hall cupboard should give us a better lead. Any CCTV footage?”

“No,” Lestrade shook his head in frustration. “Power cut earlier in the evening took out the computer. It’s only just got back online.”

“Indeed,” Sherlock inclined his head as though this had been expected, “Street cameras?”

Lestrade nodded. “Some pictures,” he said, “but not enough to go on. It appears the victim was accompanied by a woman; that much we can see, but we can’t get any detail.” Sherlock nodded.

“Of course, the rain,” he replied.

Anderson frowned. “Rain?” he queried.

Sherlock shook his head irritably. “Do you have nothing better to do?” he snapped. “Oh no, of course – you don’t. Rain, Anderson; you know, that wet stuff that falls from the sky and makes us cold, damp and uncomfortable. We try to avoid it so we wear raincoats and use umbrellas. When it’s cold as well as damp, we wear hoods and hats and turn our faces down, away from the rain. It makes picking up useful images on CCTV much more difficult.”

Anderson shook his head. “I just didn’t remember it raining last night, that’s all,” he murmured shrugging.

Sherlock glowered at him then turned to his phone and tapped out a brief text. “Now I’ve given it all to you,” he said with barely concealed impatience, “what have you got on him by more conventional means?”

“You’re right, of course,” replied Lestrade, “He was an army doctor invalided out of Afghanistan fourteen months ago – came under attack from enemy fire while administering trauma medicine in the field; honourable discharge. Apparently he landed a job with some media company. He is survived by one sister, a solicitor with a central London practice dealing with marine and salvage, lives in Tooting with her civil partner.”

Sherlock just looked at him; Lestrade shrugged. “Downstairs neighbour,” he explained, “Donovan’s still talking to her, but we got the relevant facts.”

“Do we have a name for the victim?”

“Yes – John Watson.”