Chapter 1: Prologue
He watched the cigarette smoke as it spiralled above the hand resting carelessly over the edge of the table. He tracked the intertwining patterns absently, his mind racing through several branches of chaos theory, analysing and then discarding the mathematics with irritated contempt, finally admitting to himself that he was going insane with boredom.
He mashed the cigarette half-smoked into his saucer alongside another half-dozen exactly like it and flung himself to his feet, beginning to pace the room steadily. The uniformed PC on duty at the doorway eyed him warily. He stopped short, jerking his chin to glare at the man, and started to speak in a low steady monotone without pausing for breath.
“I have already explained to you in detail several times over that keeping me here incommunicado is not only counterproductive but possibly illegal as I have committed no crime and am answerable to no one for my actions. However, I cannot be accountable for the scenario which has a seventy-three point five per cent chance of occurring if you do not get Detective Inspector Lestrade here within the next five minutes to debrief me, which will be the total destruction of this room and everything within it including, if you are not preternaturally fleet of foot, yourself!”
His voice rose sharply in pitch. He ran an exasperated hand through his hair. “At least at Baker Street, I had my violin. God help me, if this goes on much longer, I shall be reduced to singing.”
The door opened to admit a stocky, middle-aged man with a thick head of hair the colour of polished pewter more than 50% grey, uses product every morning to hide the regrowth, minus a jacket, with creased shirtsleeves wife currently away, has been on duty for more than 12 hours, and pinstripe suit trousers slightly shiny at the knee is considering retirement over the next two or three years.
“Mr Holmes?” he said in a quiet, affable voice. “Sorry to keep you waiting so long, sir. We’ve had a very busy night of it so far and no signs of it getting any quieter, I’m afraid.”
Sherlock stared without blinking. “Where is Detective Inspector Lestrade?” he demanded with no preamble.
The other man nodded slowly without taking his eyes off Sherlock. “Yes,” he said thoughtfully, “They did warn me in the briefing that you could be very direct. Fixated, they said; sometimes obsessive.”
Sherlock hooked his ankle around a tubular steel chair leg and dragged it towards him without moving his eyes. He sank back into it slowly and folded his arms.
“I prefer to call it focussed,” he replied loftily, “but in any event and whatever epithet you choose to apply to me, if Lestrade considers any of his tiny, trivial cases to be more important than to listen to what I…”
“Detective Inspector Lestrade has been suspended,” the newcomer interrupted flatly, “and will remain so until this enquiry is concluded. His conduct has been, shall we say, unwise if not actually criminal.”
Sherlock made a dismissive noise and leaned his chin in his hands, elbows on the scuffed table top, angling his body away from the other man.
“I am Detective Inspector Wainright,” the man continued, sitting down opposite Sherlock rather more sedately. “I am here to ask you a few questions before we put you away for the night.”
Sherlock rolled his eyes. “In a police cell, I suppose?” he replied disdainfully. “Well, it’s not as if I’m a stranger to them. Very well, Inspector; ask away.”
Sherlock sprawled aggressively in his hard chair, his body language deliberately open and his face expressionless.
Wainright frowned, pinching his bottom lip between finger and thumb. “I’ll tell you what, Mr Holmes,” he said quietly. “How about you start at the beginning and tell me everything you know. Then I might have some idea what questions to ask you. This is a rum do, I don’t mind telling you.”
Sherlock glared. “If I did that,” he replied loftily, “we’d be here until eternity.”
Wainright blinked patiently.
“Oh, for god’s sake!” Sherlock sighed and leaned his elbows on his knees. “You’ll be signing the Official Secrets Act within the hour,” he said wearily, “and probably facing a disciplinary hearing for having detained me here at all.”
The Inspector looked less than impressed with Sherlock’s threats and merely activated a solid state recorder, noting their names, the date and the time.
“Very well, Mr Holmes,” he said finally, without a trace of irony, “the floor is yours.”
Sherlock sat up, drawing his feet under his chair. “It will make more sense to you if I tell it in chronological order,” he said, “so listen, don’t interrupt and don’t fidget.” He arranged his fingers under his chin in his customary steeple and frowned.
“I suppose the whole thing really began, as so many tragedies do, with inheritance…”
221B Baker Street was almost completely silent. The only sounds that could be heard in the living room were the faint hum of the traffic outside the windows and the quiet clatter of computer keys. Sherlock Holmes’ fingers flew over his laptop without pause, narrowed eyes taking in everything at a glance.
Footsteps on the stairs caused Sherlock’s eyelids to flicker slightly but his fingers did not falter nor did his eyes leave the screen. Even when the door opened behind him, he showed no sign of distraction.
“What are you doing here, Mycroft?” he asked, fingers hardly missing a beat.
There was a very small pause as his brother just possibly over-inhaled before answering. “Let’s observe the niceties for once shall we, Sherlock?”
The cultured, over-smooth tones never failed to set Sherlock’s teeth on edge. He clenched his jaw. “If there is indeed a place for politesse, it is not here, “he said with icy control. “Once again, brother, what do you want?” Sherlock abandoned his computer and swung round to glare at the newcomer.
Mycroft smiled and flicked a scrap of paper from the rug with a jab of his umbrella. “Only what is in your best interests, little brother, as always,” he replied mildly.
Sherlock gave a snort of derision. “Oh, indeed,” he said, tone dripping with contempt, “I’ve made a careful record of the number of times you have tried to snare me with what you believe to be in my best interests; also the effort it has taken me to extricate myself each time. It gets old, Mycroft; kindly pack it in.”
Sherlock glared at his brother, unwillingly taking in a few salient points. Firstly, Mycroft Holmes was his usual immaculately dressed self; gorgeously tailored bespoke suit, handmade 170 yarn broadcloth shirt, and Chinese printed silk tie, not to mention the custom built Italian leather shoes (an odd eccentricity in Mycroft to eschew the London footwear companies). All this Sherlock had known in advance; could have predicted even. What made his left eyebrow twitch slightly in surprise was how drawn and tired the man looked. He had also gained several pounds in weight, if Sherlock was any judge.
“Burning the candle at both ends, are we?” he remarked coldly. Mycroft merely twitched an eyebrow. Silence fell between them until Sherlock sighed again and pushed his laptop away, turning his chair.
“What are you doing here?” he asked in a different tone.
Mycroft inclined his head regally and finally moved into the room, standing over Sherlock. “I have come to offer you employment,” he said.
Sherlock stared, blinked twice then started to laugh helplessly. Mycroft waited for him to finish, his face impassive.
“Just when I think that life can’t possibly get any more ridiculous, you come along and prove me wrong.” Sherlock wiped an imaginary tear from his eye. He leaned forward, elbows on his knees, chin in his hands. “Go home, brother,” he said quietly.
Mycroft shook his head, shifting his umbrella. “You could make something of yourself,” he protested. “Your brilliance alone could be used for the good of the country…”
“I think the country is perfectly well served with just one Holmes seeking to take over the world, don’t you?” Sherlock returned icily. “I’d sooner make a living teaching violin to pre-pubescent children.”
“That could be arranged!” Mycroft snapped back.
Sherlock raised an eyebrow in mild surprise as he watched his brother visibly rein in his temper. He smiled nastily.
“In fact,” Sherlock continued, moving in for the kill, “your timing is even more woeful than usual, brother dear. I can’t imagine there is any arbitrariness in today’s visit coinciding with my thirty-fifth birthday, mm?”
Mycroft shook his head. “No, indeed,” he replied quietly.
Sherlock grinned. “So I’m guessing this is a last-ditch attempt to get me to toe the line; an appeal to my better nature now that I have finally come into my inheritance, eh?” He shook his head, not bothering to wait for an answer. “Surely you must have realised by now that I don’t possess such a thing? My nature is and always has been entirely self-serving, Mycroft, you don’t need me to remind you of this. We grew up together, that should have given you what is colloquially called The Heads Up on me many years ago.”
“I know all of this, of course,” Mycroft returned patiently, “but I had hoped that over the last few months, your outlook on life might have changed somewhat.”
Sherlock frowned quizzically.
Mycroft sighed. “If I have to spell it out, Sherlock,” he continued, “the advent of Doctor Watson into your life seems to have had some civilising effects on you. I had high hopes that his influence might, ah, persuade you to see reason.”
“I see,” Sherlock replied, “so the motivation behind your decision as Trustee over my inheritance from father’s estate to withhold the capital and a part of the interest until I reached the age of thirty-five was to make me “see reason”? You kept me in penury for a decade and more to force me to grow up? Mycroft, even as a child you were never adept at telling fairy stories and your skills have not improved with age.”
“Sherlock, you were incapable…”
“Don’t tell me how I was!”
Sherlock flung himself out of his chair and paced around the room. He turned back to his brother. “You may leave now,” he said.
“Sherlock…” Mycroft began.
Sherlock shook his head violently. “I don’t want to hear any more,” he said between his teeth. “Now that your duties as my Trustee are over and done with, I see no earthly reason for us to meet again.”
Mycroft raised his chin obstinately. “There is the question of mummy,” he returned.
Sherlock stared at him in disbelief then finally lowered his eyes. “I believe,” he replied quietly, “the accepted descriptor in this case is “closed book”. Any and all duties I may have had in that direction, Mycroft, have long since been discharged.”
Sherlock stared at his sibling. “You made your bed, Mycroft,” he said ruthlessly, “now lie in it.”
His brother inclined his head regally. “Very well,” he replied gravely, “but that is not the only question needing an answer, Sherlock.” He smiled without humour. “You work fast, little brother. You had access to your inheritance from 0900 hours this morning. Since then, there has been considerable activity involving your affairs, both offshore and in this jurisdiction. You have made several requests for cash funding from your banks and some of the bank to bank transfers have landed in highly questionable areas.”
“None of your business,” Sherlock responded, turning back to his computer.
“That is where you are wrong,” Mycroft responded, reaching to close the lid. Sherlock turned a furious face on his brother but Mycroft persisted. “When family funds are being used for purposes which are at best debatable, at worst possibly illegal, I am bound to intervene both by family honour and also by my position.”
Sherlock rose to his feet. “Now you’re being ridiculous,” he scoffed. “My activities barely involved more than …”
“It’s not the amounts, Sherlock, it’s the principle,” Mycroft raised his voice. “I need to know for what purpose you have made multiple passport applications none of which are in your own name; to what end you have withdrawn sums of money, some in cash, some electronically, and scattered them far and wide; why you are visiting websites so dubious both politically and legally that they regularly flag up warnings even in my own department. These things I need to know partly because I am your brother, but mostly because I am responsible for home security and I know what you are capable of.”
“How in hell did you manage to…?”
“I have my methods.”
“And the staff, I suppose.”
“No, Sherlock.” Mycroft shook his head decisively. “I didn’t involve my staff in this. I took the opportunity to exercise my own underused talent for cyber-crime. Oh, don’t worry – I covered my tracks very well, you would have been proud of me, that is if you remotely cared. However, I must warn you, little brother, that I have some idea what you intend and it won’t work. You will be putting yourself into considerable danger and for what? A modicum of independence?”
“Mycroft,” Sherlock was visibly trembling with rage, “you will leave my flat now. You will not attempt to contact me again. You will keep your preternaturally sensitive ears and your abnormally large nose out of my business and you will summarily disappear from my life forthwith. Is that clear?”
Mycroft shook his head. “Sherlock, I will conduct my business entirely as I see fit,” he replied, “without reference to you or to anyone else so wholly unconnected with it. And I really must warn you against wasting your inheritance trying to slap a Restraining Order on me. No court in the land would do anything other than throw it out.”
“What will it take to get you to leave me alone?” Sherlock demanded throwing his hands in the air. Mycroft went terribly still.
“Your assistance,” he replied flatly. Sherlock blinked for a couple of beats then choked slightly, his mobile mouth tilting up at the corners.
“You’re truly asking for my help?” he asked incredulously, “Why?” Mycroft looked up; there were new wrinkles on his forehead. His mouth worked soundlessly and it took him several seconds to get the words out.
“Because I…” Mycroft choked off, gritting his teeth as though physically hurting. He expelled a breath. “Sherlock,” he said in a low voice, “I have pressing need of your particular skills. Also your – proximity is something I urgently require.”
Mycroft levelled a look at his brother and their gaze locked; Sherlock’s eyes widened in surprise.
“Are you serious?” he asked, then shook his head. “Belay that. Of course you are; you wouldn’t have climbed so far down from your high horse if you weren’t.” He was silent for a moment then shook his head. “No.”
Mycroft’s head jerked upwards. “But Sherlock…”
“You haven’t even heard…”
“I don’t have to,” Sherlock said angrily. “It’s the thin end of the wedge, I’m afraid, and I can’t afford to risk dealing with you. And don’t try telling me that the security of the nation depends upon it; I’m afraid I’ve heard that one too many times. And besides, I already have a case I’m committed to. I can’t back out now.”
Mycroft’s shoulders sagged. “Very well,” he said dully. He gripped his umbrella and walked slowly towards the door.
“Mycroft,” Sherlock said very quietly. The other man turned.
Sherlock raised his eyes with a small smile. “Close the door after you,” he said.
The footsteps faded away gradually. Sherlock stared intently at his laptop screen for fully twenty minutes before he started work again.
The floor of the living room was covered in books, papers and the contents of a cupboard Sherlock was currently ransacking. Hearing the slam of the front door, Sherlock straightened slightly and surveyed the wreckage with a kind of resigned despair; I’m really in for it now.
“…virtually ran over my feet, he was so close. I mean it – his helmet visor practically grazed my nose! Some of these motorbike couriers think Baker Street is a… Sherlock, what the blazes is going on in here?” John appeared in the doorway, his expression almost comically mystified as he took in the devastation.
“Can’t find my portable hard drive,” Sherlock muttered, throwing yet more junk on the floor.
“Sherlock, you haven’t been in that cupboard for months!” John protested helplessly. “And come to think of it, your hard drive was by the bread bin the last time I looked.”
Sherlock shook his head vigorously. “Not that hard drive, the other hard drive,” he corrected, “The one that has all my – ah, there it is!” Flinging himself flat, Sherlock dived into the floor-level cupboard, wriggling until most of his torso was actually inside the thing. He flailed around like a stranded fish, struggling to get into reverse.
“John!” Sherlock called, his voice muffled. He heard John give a short bark of laughter then both his ankles were seized and he was vigorously propelled backwards out of the cupboard with just enough warning to tuck his head in. He lay blinking on the carpet, holding onto his prize like grim death. Rolling over on his back, Sherlock grinned winningly up at John who sighed, gave him a patient smile and offered a hand up.
“Okay,” John said, grunting with the effort of hauling six foot one of muscle to its feet. “Now, what’s going on? Why does the living room resemble an electronics graveyard?”
“I’m packing,” Sherlock announced, dropping the hard drive into a polythene bag along with several other unnameable objects, “A case – flying out tonight.”
John’s face fell. “Look, we had this out two months ago when you… when you came back,” he said, frown lines forming on his forehead. “I can’t just drop everything and follow you at a moment’s notice, Sherlock. I’m covering a maternity leave for Sarah – you know this, you’ve known it for ages! I’ve got less than a week to go; can’t this case, whatever it is, wait just a few more days?”
Sherlock was already shaking his head. “They want me there yesterday, John,” he said, rummaging through a nest of cables on the kitchen table. “It’s a nice little puzzle, really quite intriguing, and it’s scarcely my fault you can’t organise your life more flexibly. Where the hell is my phone charger?”
John stared then shook his head, evidently deciding to swallow that one. “Well, how about I fly out and join you at the weekend, then?” he suggested.
“No,” Sherlock answered flatly without looking up. “I’ll have it sorted in no time at all, and I’ll be back in Baker Street by Saturday. Ah, here it is!” He untangled his prize with a satisfied smirk and looked up to meet John’s eyes. “You don’t have to worry, you know,” he said, stuffing the charger and three assorted plugs into his jacket pocket. “I’ll return when I say I will and I’ll keep in touch, I promise. I won’t vanish into thin air, John.”
John’s face darkened in anger. Sherlock watched with resignation as the other man clenched his jaw making muscles jump in the sides of his face. Oh, lord, what have I said now?
“Not disappearing on me again is one thing,” John protested in a low voice, “but as regards my job, you said you were perfectly happy with the arrangement, not to mention the extra money.”
Sherlock shook his head. “You really don’t need to work there, John, I told you that,” he replied, leafing through a sheaf of papers on the table. He looked up again. “Useful as your wages are, they are scarcely necessary, especially now.” He grinned.
“Not necessary?” John had started to splutter already and he had only been in the flat five minutes. This was a record even by Sherlock’s standards.
John planted his hands on his hips and glared. “Look, you aren’t the only one around here who has a vocation,” he replied heatedly, “and my salary does pay half the rent, or had you forgotten?”
Sherlock shrugged, crammed half a dozen sheets of paper into his other jacket pocket and picked up the polythene bag.
“I hadn’t forgotten,” he replied calmly, “but I’m not sure you were listening this morning when I told you it was my birthday.”
Sherlock watched that piece of information soak its way across John’s face. The interplay of John’s expressions was far more entertaining than packing and Sherlock stood contentedly staring at his flatmate’s face for several long moments.
“Congratulations,” John finally managed, “and this is important exactly why?”
Sherlock gave him an old-fashioned look then checked the voltage on a USB mains charger. “Shame on you, John!” he chided with a smirk. “All birthdays are important – at least, that’s what you told me last month. You were quite firm about the subject, as I recall.”
“You never remember anyone’s birthday, let alone mine,” John replied. “Look, I’m not disputing its importance, Sherlock, just its relevance to the current discussion.”
“Exactly!” Sherlock exclaimed, darting out of the living room and into his bedroom.
Seeing no other option, John went with him. “I’m still not following you,” he complained, pausing on the threshold.
Sherlock jigsawed the pieces of electronic equipment, including his newly-retrieved hard drive, into a medium-sized case already packed with clothing, lying open on his bed. He looked up from his task.
“You clearly are,” Sherlock quipped, “unless you make a habit of entering my bedroom.” He painstakingly refolded a purple shirt and placed it on the top.
John blinked and frowned, looking about him in perplexity; Sherlock rolled his eyes and straightened up with a disconcertingly cheerful grin.
“Today, John,” he announced, “I attained my majority and as a result, any difficulties over living expenses are now a thing of the past.”
“Correct me if I’m wrong,” John replied slowly, “but you attained your majority a good fourteen years ago.”
“Not according to Mycroft I didn’t.” Sherlock zipped up his case and shrugged his way into his coat. “There’s my taxi now, back in a week or so – sooner if I can do it. Don’t wait up for me!”
Sherlock swept past, piling down the stairs without a backward glance.
John opened and closed his mouth soundlessly for a moment before belatedly taking off after his flatmate. “Hang on a mo!” he yelled, taking the stairs two at a time. “What the hell? Sherlock! Jesus, at least tell me where you’re going!”
John stood in the doorway of 221 and watched helplessly as his flatmate dived into a cab, throwing his suitcase onto the back seat. Sherlock wound down the window as the driver started to turn the vehicle.
“Monaco,” Sherlock shouted, “I’ll Skype you later.” He waved then swivelled around in his seat. The cab lumbered its way down Baker Street.
“Monaco?” John muttered in mystification. “Monaco! Hang on – Sherlock! You’re going to Monte Carlo aren’t you, you utter, utter swine? You can’t go to Monte without me. Come back, you bastard! Come back now!”
John leaped into the road, waving frantically at the disappearing taxi and doing a frustrated little dance in the gutter. A volley of motor horns made him jump swiftly back onto the pavement. Shaking his head, he trudged back into the hallway of number 221.
Mrs Hudson emerged from her flat and smiled brightly, clucking over John. “Exciting, isn’t it?” she said, closing the door. “He only got the call this afternoon – Monte Carlo! I’ve always wanted to go there. I like a bit of a flutter occasionally, not for serious money, you understand, just a bit of fun now and then.”
John smiled vaguely and climbed back upstairs, unreasonably annoyed to note that Sherlock had left his trademark coat hanging on its peg.
The plane journey to Nice was two interminable hours, most of which Sherlock appeared spend asleep. He declined all offers of food, drink, fashion items and duty free, although he did briefly wonder if John would appreciate a wireless mouse in the shape of a fluffy pink, well, mouse. He decided against it, opting instead to complain about the lack of leg room.
He felt stiff and unpleasantly dry when the plane landed at Nice, eyes scratchy and ears ringing. By the time he emerged from Baggage Reclaim, it was full dark outside and the place was awash with tourists and holidaymakers. Threading his way through the milling crowds, Sherlock made for the taxi rank.
“Mr Holmes?” The voice was quite close to his right elbow. Sherlock stopped abruptly, causing a businessman walking hard on his heels to curse and veer quickly to one side. A besuited man regarded him with raised eyebrows and a questioning look.
“Mr Sherlock Holmes?” the man repeated in respectful though carrying tones. Sherlock nodded tersely and the man gestured for him to walk ahead, smoothly taking possession of Sherlock’s luggage.
“A car has been sent for you, sir,” the man said more quietly, falling into step just slightly behind Sherlock, “and a suite has been reserved for you at the Hotel de Regina. I hope it is to your liking.”
“I’m sure it will be satisfactory,” Sherlock replied striding ahead, eyes alert.
The car turned out to be a deep blue limousine, extravagantly outfitted with matching leather upholstery and everything anyone could possibly want for a journey of any length, including a shoeshine kit, a cocktail cabinet and an Xbox. Ignoring all of it, Sherlock pulled his laptop from his hand luggage, plugged in his noise-cancelling headphones and logged on.
There are many hotels in Monte Carlo that will send an unwary tourist home with a credit card bill as long as his arm. There are a few that will land him in serious financial straits and there are perhaps a half dozen that could put him in a debtor’s prison. The Hotel de Regina belongs firmly in the latter category and just in case you were in some doubt about that fact, the listed exterior and the opulent décor would put you right. Built in the 1860s as a benchmark of luxury accommodation for the rich and famous, the Regina was designed to strike visitors with the breathless awe and respect befitting its reputation as the most gorgeous hotel in the entirety of Monaco – and, of course, the most expensive. With its immense façade of gleaming white stucco decorated with frescoes, lavish terraces and gardens fed by intricately sculpted fountains, magnificent foyer with marble pillars, beautifully inlaid mosaic flooring and exquisite Louis 16th chandeliers, no visitor could remain unmoved by the Regina’s utter loveliness.
Glancing neither left nor right, Sherlock Holmes strode through the entrance to the Hotel de Regina, into the foyer and to the Front Desk texting furiously as he went. He glanced up briefly, peremptorily demanding his room key from the impassive Concierge, and swept away, leaving the porter to follow with his luggage. The lift ascended silently to the top floor, the province of those suites that had their own private terraces. Sherlock entered his living room, flung himself down on the sofa and continued messaging. After a moment, he looked up irritably.
“Are you still here?” he demanded of the hapless porter. “No, I don’t want to make a restaurant reservation; no, I don’t need room service; and no, I certainly don’t want a companion to escort me around the casinos. Now, kindly leave and let me work in peace.”
Sherlock logged on to his emails, almost absently hacking in to the hotel’s Wi-Fi because it was easier than asking for a key, and noted with satisfaction three replies to enquiries he had made during the thirty-five minute car drive from Nice airport. He dealt with those then signed in to Skype and called John, rather perturbed when he received no answer. He was about to try his phone when there was a discreet knock at the door.
“Come,” he called, eyes still glued to the screen.
“Sherlock!” a smooth male voice preceded the entry of a slender, blond man wearing a warm smile and a very expensive suit. Sherlock pushed aside his computer and stood.
“Victor,” he responded as the blond man gripped his shoulders and kissed him on both cheeks in the Continental style. Sherlock responded in kind and breathed in freshly washed hair and the faint tendrils of an exclusive cologne.
“I’m so pleased you were able to come,” Victor said, still smiling. “Was your journey too tedious?”
Sherlock made a non-committal face. “No more tiresome than expected,” he replied. “The leg room in First Class is still unacceptably sparse.”
“Well, not many of us have quite your advantage, Sherlock,” Victor smiled easily, “A drink downstairs in the bar before dinner, perhaps?”
Sherlock nodded. “That would be most welcome,” he replied. “I have a few questions concerning the case.”
Victor laughed heartily and clapped Sherlock on the shoulder to the latter’s mild surprise. “All work and no play,” Victor said, smiling. “I see that little has changed over the years.”
Sherlock frowned in puzzlement.
Victor laughed again. “Take an evening to settle in, Sherlock,” he said expansively. “The restaurant at the de Regina is second to none. Enjoy your dinner; drink a glass of wine, or several, if you prefer; regale me with your exploits – I have looked over your blog and that of your colleague, Doctor Watson. They make most entertaining reading.”
Sherlock shrugged. “If you say so, Victor,” he replied, “but the clock is on.”
“I wouldn’t have it any other way.” Victor patted Sherlock’s shoulder once more. “There will be plenty of time to talk business in the morning. Here – I’ll let you unpack. We will meet in the Terrace Bar in, say, thirty minutes, yes?”
Sherlock nodded, turning to his luggage; clearly, he was expected to dress for dinner.
A small dry sherry at the bar preceded a late dinner at a quiet corner table consisting of a cuisine so nouvelle that even Sherlock managed to eat most of it, accompanied by a very fine Sancerre which slipped down smoothly and almost unnoticeably. Coffee followed on the terrace, with Armagnac for Victor, and a breathtakingly beautiful night vista of clear sky, stars and a nearby firework display.
Sherlock was wound so tightly he thought he might actually implode. He tugged at his perfectly tied bow tie and felt beads of sweat break out at his hairline.
A waiter walked past with a bottle of Evian and a frosted glass not a native, from Iraq although he claims to be Polish and deposited it in front of a middle-aged woman not travelling alone, husband jet-lagged and asleep, hopes to be able to drink too much without him nagging her before taking an order from the next table couple on a make-or-break holiday, two children, one at university, his affair caused an estrangement with the older one…
Sherlock jumped at the unexpected touch and looked down to see two manicured fingers resting lightly on his wrist. As he stared Victor withdrew his hand, smiling ruefully.
“My apologies,” he said gravely, “I remember how seldom you tolerated casual contact from our Cambridge days – I guess that hasn’t really changed, hmm?”
Sherlock narrowed his eyes. “It doesn’t alarm me,” he replied evenly, “when I know the person reasonably well.”
Victor inclined his head in acceptance. “I was trying to gain your attention,” he said, “You were somewhere in your own head.” He smiled. “You used to do that all the time, I remember. Anyway, I was wondering whether it was too late to take you for a tour of the casinos – I imagine you haven’t visited Monte before, yes?”
“That is correct,” Sherlock replied.
Victor’s smile widened. “Then let me show you around,” he offered with a smile.
Sherlock shook his head, drawing his feet under his chair and shifting his weight in order to stand up. His head felt unpleasantly woolly.
“Thank you,” he said, “but it has been a long day and I have a few things to take care of before retiring.” He inclined his head. “Goodnight, Victor.”
Victor also rose from his chair and proffered his hand. “Goodnight, Sherlock,” he replied with a smile. “Thank you for your company over dinner. It was a pleasure to see you again after all this time.”
Victor’s grasp was firm and his hand was warm and dry. Sherlock nodded without smiling, turned on his heel and made for the lift with the intriguing discomfort of knowing that Victor’s eyes were fixed on him as he walked away.
Back in his sumptuous suite, Sherlock stood on the balcony looking out over the teeming city lights. He bit his lower lip, eyes narrowing and shook his head slightly, trying to clear his thoughts. He considered his laptop, noting the late hour – too late to Skype John now without getting an earful of abuse. Sherlock sank into an armchair, elbows on knees, chin in hands and abruptly knew no more. His muscles were stiff and cold when he woke, full daylight sifting in through the curtained windows.
Any and all references to people and establishments in this chapter are, of course, entirely fictional. However, the inspiration for Victor Trevor's house was drawn from the Villa O, a very interesting property which is actually on the outskirts of Monte Carlo. The Hotel de Regina and the Belle Epoque are both completely imaginary but based on various establishments I have visited in the past, both for business and pleasure.
Victor was already in the dining room when Sherlock appeared, sitting at a small table tucked into a secluded corner against a picture window, a small espresso in front of him. On seeing him, Victor laid down the breakfast menu he was perusing and stood smiling in greeting. Sherlock approached, noting the perfect view from the window and the way the sun glanced off Victor’s bright hair. He shook his head sharply, trying to clear the fuzziness from his vision; Victor frowned.
“Headache?” he queried solicitously.
Sherlock nodded reluctantly. “A slight malaise,” he confessed, “The journey must have been even less bearable than I remember.”
“Maybe an effect of the change of climate,” Victor replied sympathetically. He stood while the waiter seated Sherlock in the other chair before resuming his own.
“And of course that would never have occurred to me,” replied Sherlock, burying his nose in the menu, “having never in my life set foot outside the UK before today.”
Sherlock’s voice dripped sarcasm. Victor gave him a level gaze. “Of course,” he said apologetically, “I was forgetting that you are half French. Does your family live in Southern or Northern France?” He raised his eyebrows interrogatively over the rim of his coffee cup. Sherlock gave him a disdainful glance and ignored the question.
Breakfast was usually a non-meal for Sherlock at 221B but in view of the fact that Victor was his client, Sherlock ordered some papaya which he pushed around his plate for a minute or two before abandoning, and a black coffee which he drank scalding hot with an overabundance of sugar and an almost physical gratitude when the caffeine kicked in. Victor eyed him over a beautifully gooey mushroom omelette.
“Feeling better?” he asked, “Or do you need some pharmaceutical assistance?”
Sherlock gave his client a sharp look but Victor merely gazed back pleasantly, his face a mask of polite enquiry. Sherlock shook his head.
“Thank you, I am perfectly well,” he replied coolly. “Now, perhaps we can get down to business.”
Victor paused for a moment then laid down his fork. “Very well,” he said. “I’ll give you some of the details now, but I suggest we repair to somewhere more private for the rest.”
Sherlock smiled meanly. “Let me save you the trouble,” he said, steepling his fingers. “The Trevor family always had an entrepreneurial streak and a few of their ventures have proved very profitable indeed over the generations. One of these was the purchase and development of casinos in various cities throughout the fashionable world. Over the years, your family’s interests diversified and their holdings in this area dwindled, but you retain the Casino Belle Époque to this day, arguably the oldest and most prestigious casino in Monte Carlo, perhaps in mainland Europe. Your family has come to rely on its steady income so their consternation when the profits took a sharp dip was very real. The loss is minor to moderate but its effect on an established business is significant and despite your investigations, you cannot work out how or why it is happening. So you called me in to solve the mystery.”
Sherlock sat back in his chair and smirked. His expression resembled that of a cat with a couple of canary feathers sticking out of its mouth.
Victor’s cup paused in its trajectory between the saucer and his mouth. “Well,” he said finally, “nothing really changes, does it?”
Sherlock bowed his head in silent acknowledgement.
Victor drank his coffee thoughtfully. “You are absolutely correct on all fronts,” he admitted. “We are indeed experiencing an unexplained shortfall. Our analysts can make no sense of it; there are no unexplained pay-outs, nothing that could be traced to theft or embezzlement. Our clients are spending at the same level and there has been no drop-off in attendance, there is simply less profit at the end of each day.”
“And yours is the only casino in Monte which is suffering, am I correct?” Sherlock asked.
Victor nodded. “Again, you are right,” he replied. “Members of my security staff have made discreet enquiries – no other casino has been affected...”
“So why the Belle Epoque?” Sherlock interrupted.
Victor shook his head. “I have not the faintest idea why we are being targeted,” he replied.
Sherlock nodded faintly, his mind clearly working at a speed of knots. He rose swiftly to his feet. “I require access to your CCTV footage from the past two months,” he said abruptly. “Also, I need to interview your croupiers and your front of house staff. And I would appreciate some kind of cover for the next two or three evenings.”
“Cover?” Victor queried, also rising from his chair.
Sherlock nodded. “Yes,” he replied, “A good reason for being present throughout to avoid being challenged by your security.”
Victor laughed. “Don’t worry,” he said, “I’ll brief them thoroughly; you won’t be bothered. Is there something wrong?”
The look Sherlock levelled at Victor was withering to say the least.
“How well do you trust your staff?” Sherlock asked mildly.
“Absolutely,” Victor replied without hesitation. “They are handpicked and most of them have been with us for many years.”
“Would you trust them with your life?”
“Some of them, yes.”
“But not all?”
Victor frowned. “What are you getting at?” he replied. “No, of course I wouldn’t trust every single one of them to that extent. You’d be astonished if I even…”
“Then in that case, I would be obliged if you expressly do not brief them as to my real identity,” Sherlock told him firmly.
Victor stared. “You mean invent a cover story?” His eyes widened. “That you are a visiting professor of mathematics conducting a study into probability, perhaps?”
Sherlock rolled his eyes. “Or a random sociologist looking into the science of addiction – don’t be ridiculous, Victor!”
Sherlock sighed. He leaned forward. “Look,” he said, “describe me simply as your personal guest. Play it up a little, tell them we met at Cambridge and lost touch. Give them some kind of sentimental nonsense about finding each other on Friends Reunited, if you like, that should be sufficient.”
Victor raised his left eyebrow quizzically and one side of his mouth quirked in a mildly mocking manner; Sherlock felt his face flush.
“Give me an advance to spend on the tables,” Sherlock continued, looking everywhere but Victor’s face, “just enough to keep me from rousing suspicion – and I’ll deal with the rest.”
Victor nodded. “Very well,” he replied, suddenly all business, “I’ll set it up this afternoon. I’ll also make sure the bar staff know to keep you happy – not that the little amount you drink will affect the bar takings in any way.” He chuckled, regaining some of his good humour. “Your alcohol consumption was never high, Sherlock, but it appears to be almost non-existent now. Don’t think I didn’t notice you barely got through one glass of that excellent vintage we enjoyed with dinner last night.”
Sherlock shrugged. “Dulls the brain,” he responded. He nodded quickly. “Very well, Victor, if that’s all, then I’ll see you at the Belle Époque at around 2pm. I’ve a few enquiries to make this morning.”
“Why don’t we meet for lunch?” Victor suggested. “You could come to my house. I’ll send a driver for you at twelve.”
Sherlock shook his head firmly. “Too busy,” he replied, “After all, you want this thing settled, don’t you?”
Victor smiled. “Dinner later then?” he persisted. “I remember your habit of starving your body to hone your brain to maximum sharpness, Sherlock, but I absolutely insist you have dinner with me this evening; we can repair to the tables afterwards.”
Sherlock paused for an instant before inclining his head. “Very well,” he replied, “but I warn you, it will be a working dinner.”
Their eyes locked; Victor nodded faintly. “Very well,” he replied, “Have it your way.”
“Be very sure that I will,” Sherlock replied maintaining his level stare. He nodded, turned on his heel and left the dining room.
Once in the lift, Sherlock turned on his phone, checked for messages and missed calls and then typed a quick text to John:
Sorry about last night, no time to explain. Will Skype later. SH
He had set up his laptop on a small desk near a window and was downloading police CCTV footage from the street outside the Belle Époque when his phone chimed.
You might have called before now you tosser. Was worried so was Mrs H. Dont use Skype - might be late - got a date tonight!! Email – Ill answer later. What you doing in Monte?
Sherlock frowned. John had a date? This was unexpected, particularly as John had shown no signs of a new love interest over recent weeks. It had to be an opportunist thing; someone new at the surgery, maybe? Sherlock was unaccountably disturbed that he had missed the symptoms. Frowning, he pocketed his phone; he would email John later.
The Head of Security at the Belle Époque was an Englishman, quietly spoken, unobtrusively dressed with a deceptively mild manner. He rejoiced in the name of Hugh Ampney.
“Management’s certain it’s card counters, Mr Holmes,” Ampney said, “and I have to admit, it’s the only solution that makes any kind of sense, but my staff aren’t turning up any proof. They’ve gone through weeks of CCTV pictures - nothing.”
“Yes,” Sherlock ran a hand over his chin to feel his stubble rasp, “but reports indicate that the slot machines are also showing a deficit. Card counting wouldn’t affect that area of the business.”
Ampney nodded. “True enough,” he replied, “and there are ways as you probably know, even against state-of-the-art systems such as ours, but the technology is rare and pretty sophisticated. We haven’t had a whisper of anything on that scale for some years.”
Sherlock nodded. “Get me the footage from the past three weeks,” he said, dragging a supportive-looking chair to where he could work at Ampney’s desktop.
The man nodded and leaned over to call up the files. "We keep around two months’ worth of data as a rule,” he told Sherlock as he worked. “However, currently we only have files from the past five days.”
“Oh?” Sherlock frowned up at him.
Ampney shrugged. “Computer error,” he explained, “Backup erased all the current security files; it caused no end of trouble for me, I can tell you.”
“How did it happen?” Sherlock asked.
Ampney sighed and spread his hands. “They said it was a software glitch,” he explained. “There was an update from the manufacturers – it didn’t interface well with some of our existing programs. Apparently, the legal department is still arguing over damages but the manufacturers are insisting they’re not responsible.”
Sherlock narrowed his eyes. “They said it was a software glitch?” he repeated.
Hugh Ampney gave him a level stare. “That’s what I said,” he replied quietly. “I’m an old-fashioned man, Mr Holmes, and I believe in keeping things simple. I’ve been working at the Belle Époque for nearly twenty years now and I’m good at my job. I’ve seen the damage done by leaving security systems to run themselves and I’ve always made it my business to know as much as possible about everything that comes into my remit, including the programming. So when something doesn’t work right and you know there’s no apparent reason for it – well, you start to look elsewhere for the cause, that’s all.”
“What,” said Sherlock slowly, “are you trying to tell me?”
The man shook his head. “I wish I knew, Mr Holmes,” he replied, “I really do.”
“That’s interesting,” Sherlock muttered, not taking his eyes away from the other man. “Alright, Mr Ampney, I’ll take it from here.” He swung back to the screen.
“Good luck,” the other man said. “It took my people days to get through even that lot. Anything else you need?”
Sherlock nodded. “Yes,” he said. He glanced up at the Head of Security, “Coffee – black with two sugars please – every hour or so. Good afternoon.”
Dinner with Victor that evening was a sumptuous affair. Sherlock had expected to dine at the casino, but the discreet black car which came to collect him accelerated smoothly out of the city into the hills, swinging into a quiet road somewhere in the suburbs that terminated in the parking basement of a house.
As the chauffeur ushered him up an internal flight of steel and glass stairs, Sherlock reflected that whilst he and Mycroft would probably agree to call this a house, John would almost certainly call it a mansion if not a palace. Victor’s home was certainly striking and possibly beautiful too, if you liked modernist architecture with lots of glass and concrete. Victor clearly did.
Victor greeted Sherlock with a huge smile and an expansive, proprietorial air. He pressed a glass of vintage champagne on Sherlock and then insisted on giving him a full tour of his home before dinner, making sure to show him the Balinese-style rooftop pool, the private cinema, the air-conditioned gym and finally, the tastefully designed master bedroom suite.
“I argued bitterly with my decorator over so much white where I was intending to sleep,” he told Sherlock, his feet making no sound on the plush carpet, “but she persuaded me in the end and I must say that it really is extremely restful. You always suffered from insomnia, I recall; you should try it.”
“Are you referring to the colour scheme or your bedroom, Victor?” Sherlock asked in a suspiciously mild tone; Victor merely smiled.
After Sherlock had viewed every inch of handmade glass, exquisite vista and minimalist décor, dinner was served on the terrace by a staff so discreet as to be almost invisible; a casual buffet of hot and cold dishes with some imaginative and colourful salads.
“I thought you would feel more comfortable if we dined informally,” Victor explained. “I realised that last night’s dinner was probably not the best idea for someone of your erratic eating habits.”
Sherlock shrugged; whether anyone noticed his lack of appetite was supremely irrelevant to him. He took a glass of wine because it was given to him and he tumbled a slice of poached salmon and a few vegetables onto his plate largely for something to do, but he managed no more than a mouthful or two in the two hours he spent at Victor’s home.
After coffee, Victor led the way back into the house and through to the bedrooms. Sherlock allowed himself a tiny eyebrow twitch but followed obediently enough. Victor led the way into a guest room similar in style to the Master Bedroom. Laid out carefully on the ample double bed were dinner jacket and dress trousers, a simple white dinner shirt, black silk socks in ironed folds and other items including a shoeshine kit.
“Forgive me,” he purred, “I took the liberty of procuring you black tie. You have your own back at the hotel of course, but to dress here would be so much more comfortable and convenient, n’est ce pas?”
Sherlock, of course, had no such thing with him and even if he had, his budget would never have stretched to apparel of this quality. Good lord, there were even platinum cufflinks with Victor’s family crest discreetly picked out in gold. Sherlock expended so much energy keeping his face expressionless he thought he would crack a tooth.
“That was most – thoughtful of you, Victor,” he managed.
The other man smiled placidly and moved towards the door. “Let me know when you are ready,” he replied quietly, “and I’ll order the limousine.”
The air in the car seemed damp and close despite the air conditioning and Sherlock had to fight the impulse to tug at his collar. Victor’s fingers on his tie earlier, making minute adjustments, had put Sherlock’s neck hairs on end; he was less than sanguine about doing anything to provoke a similar experience in closer proximity. He sank back into the plush leather and realised, to his surprise, that he was tired.
A mere moment later, Sherlock felt a gentle hand on his shoulder and realised that not only had they arrived at the Belle Époque but also that he had dozed off and slept for the entire journey. Victor was smiling that secret, knowing smile again.
“You have not yet recovered from your journey, mon ami,” he said. “I hope your nap has refreshed you a little. Now, this evening we must work; there will be time for play later, I assure you.”
Sherlock gave Victor what he hoped was a withering look. The sluggishness of his muscles made his exit from the limousine less than graceful.
Later, Sherlock would realise that his memories of the evening were unusually disjointed. Certainly nothing untoward happened, he was sure of that, but there were unaccountable gaps in the screenplay of his recollections and his eidetic memory seemed to be suffering random outages. It was enough for him to wonder seriously if he was in need of a genuine holiday, a period of rest. This was extremely unnerving; typically, Sherlock did not rest until his body gave out on him. Perhaps that was what was finally happening.
Sherlock prowled around the casino, allowing himself the occasional bet on the roulette wheel. He spent a little while playing blackjack just to establish himself as a punter, but the whole thing bored him out of his skull. Manipulating a game this simple was really not nuclear physics and for a mathematical savant such as himself, it was a strain to keep losing credibly.
On a temporary release in search of something that looked non-alcoholic to drink, Sherlock wandered into the bar area, scanning the crowd for familiar faces. One or two had his internal radar paying attention, but there was really nothing definite. He ordered a slim line tonic with ice and lemon, aware that no one would know its composition just by looking at it, and watched the room in the massive gilt mirror over the bar while he pondered. He became aware of a shadow by his side and turned his head minutely.
The woman was thin to the point of emaciation with jet black hair and a smooth olive complexion. Her strong, attractive features were southern European, possibly Spanish. Her simple black dress was neither demure nor provocative, merely extremely well-tailored and her manicure was expensive. She gave her order to the bartender and leaned against the bar, turning towards Sherlock as she waited.
“Not playing tonight?” she asked neutrally. Her accent was very slight, honed down by years of living in mainland Europe, but Sherlock could trace it to Barcelona. He tilted his head very slightly to regard her in the mirror.
“Boring,” he replied. She raised a perfectly shaped eyebrow.
“Indeed. So why come here at all?” she asked. She took a cigarette from her understated clutch bag and held it between thin fingers. Without taking his eyes from her, Sherlock reached for a matchbook and brought the flame up as she raised the cigarette to her lips. As she took the first drag, Sherlock moved imperceptibly nearer and inhaled quickly.
The woman laughed. Sherlock turned from the mirror to look at her. He raised his eyebrows.
“Once a smoker, always a smoker,” she told him. “You’ll never forget it no matter how many years go by.”
Slightly disconcerted, Sherlock covered himself with a sip from the drink that had appeared magically at his elbow. The woman copied his movement with something cola-based of her own.
“My name is Olivia,” she told him, “Olivia Garcia Ramirez.”
Sherlock nodded silently. “And your name is?” she prompted.
“Sherlock Holmes,” he muttered, gulping at his drink. The woman nodded unsurprised.
“The detective,” she murmured, moving closer.
Sherlock’s shoulders stiffened reflexively. Ramirez put a gentle hand over his wrist.
“Don’t flinch,” she said quietly, “and try not to pull away. Smile if you can – the cameras will record a mild flirtation, nothing more.” She took another sip from her drink and leaned into him; her lips brushed the edge of his ear.
“What are you doing here?” she asked quietly; the half-lidded eyes and secret smile Sherlock could see in the mirror were strictly at odds with her serious tone.
“I’m a guest of Victor Trevor,” Sherlock replied equally quietly. Ramirez nodded, locks of her dark hair brushing gently over his shoulder.
“That too,” she said, “but what’s the other purpose, the main one? Mr Holmes, the Trevor family is a close-knit group. Problems in the business are dealt with quietly and efficiently and always kept in-house. I know Mr Trevor well and in all the time I’ve had dealings with him, he has never used outside contractors. And yet here you are.”
“And you want to know why,” Sherlock replied. He turned to face her. “Very well, let me ask you this: why should I talk to you – the employee of a business rival, a competitor and an unknown quantity, with no as yet stated reason to care one way or another about the health of either the Belle Époque or the Trevor family, hm?”
Ramirez did not move nor did her expression change, but Sherlock noticed a muscle twitch at her temple and allowed himself a small smile of satisfaction.
Ramirez drew on her cigarette and stubbed it out in the ashtray. “You reputation precedes you,” she told him. She pressed her lips together briefly. “To clarify, I am indeed Head of Security at the Meridian Casino, one of the direct competitors of the Belle Époque.”
Sherlock nodded. “I know,” he replied, “So, what is your interest here?”
“In the Belle Époque? None,” she replied, “other than professional curiosity. With Victor? The association between our employers goes back a long way.”
“You have had professional or personal dealings with Mr Trevor in the past?” Sherlock asked.
Ramirez frowned. “With Mr Trevor?” she replied with slight puzzlement, “Completely professional, of course.”
Sherlock nodded then changed his posture, leaning against the mahogany bar on one elbow.
“So, Miss Ramirez,” he drawled, “let me pose the same question you asked me – what are you doing here?”
Ramirez straightened, all trace of her former languid sultriness erased. “Believe it or not,” she said, “I’m trying to help you.”
Sherlock gave a bark of laughter. “When I need help from your kind,” he replied tersely, “I’ll throw myself off a balcony. You’ll have to do better than that.”
Irritation rippled fleetingly across her face. “Very well, Mr Holmes,” she said formally, “Let us simply say this: you are not the only one who can draw conclusions from CCTV footage.”
Ramirez pushed herself away from the bar and stalked towards the exit. Halfway there, she hesitated and turned back.
“Take my advice, Mr Holmes,” she said flatly, “Don’t take anything here at face value; nothing at all.”
“Do you honestly think I need that advice?” Sherlock retorted scornfully.
She shrugged. “Just a friendly warning,” she replied. “Goodnight, Mr Holmes.”
As he watched her move into the crowd, he had to admire the way she could drop her attractive profile and merge with the crowd; he doubted that Victor or his security team would ever be aware of her presence that evening unless he, Sherlock, alerted them.
Sherlock was still staring pensively into his empty glass when Victor walked into the bar, apparently looking for him.
“You look weary, mon ami,” he said, putting a hand on Sherlock’s shoulder. “Perhaps you should come back with me this evening; no offence to the Regina Hotel, but you would probably sleep better higher in the hills.”
Sherlock shook his head. “I’ll be very comfortable in my air conditioned suite, Victor, thank you,” he replied, stretching his legs stiffly and clambering down from his bar stool.
Victor smiled and reached out a hand to pluck a single long black hair from Sherlock’s shoulder.
“It looks like you had company tonight,” he commented as they turned to leave the bar. “Was she pretty?”
“I didn’t notice,” Sherlock muttered, concentrating on keeping his centre of gravity stable. Victor did not comment, merely steadied Sherlock with a discreet hand on his elbow until such time as he recovered.
Sherlock leaned his back to the closed door of his hotel suite and sighed gustily. It was 3am. Victor had been characteristically persistent, still bright-eyed and alert despite the late hour, and Sherlock had found it difficult to shake him off. Wearily, Sherlock slumped into the bathroom and examined his face in the mirror. He looked drained and hollow-eyed even though he had slept, after a fashion, the previous night. He had shaved at Victor’s but his small amount of dark stubble stood out in livid contrast to his pallor. His body felt heavy and sluggish and his brain was refusing to come out of its kennel like a reluctant guard dog on a cold night.
Sherlock showered and shaved again to get the miasma of the casino out of his skin, pulled on his sleeping wear and took his laptop out of the safe. He settled at the desk in his living room with the curtains open, the lights of the city filtered by the gauze drape.
Sherlock logged on and checked his email. There was nothing from John, which did not surprise him as the agreement had been for Sherlock to make contact that evening. He logged on to the Belle Époque as Hugh Ampney, using the login details he memorised earlier in the day, and hacked the various permissions needed to access this evening’s CCTV footage. He watched for a while in silence then, satisfied, made a few adjustments and exited.
Sherlock wrote a swift email to John:
Sorry for delay – spent the evening with Victor in the casino. Met a woman who might interest you under other circumstances (attached photo). Tomorrow likely v. busy. SH
Sherlock attached a still from the CCTV footage of Olivia Ramirez smiling winningly up at him. John would probably find that quite amusing.
Towards daybreak, Sherlock’s eyes refused to focus and he gave in, sliding between the cool sheets of the double bed. After some tossing and turning, he dropped into an uneasy doze dogged by anxious dreams, awaking just before nine, confused and fogged. A cool shower and a glass of water did little to help and as he took the stairs down to the dining room, he noticed a slight lag between his perception and his movement; his balance felt off somehow.
Victor was, of course, waiting for him at the usual table and jumped to his feet at once.
“You are unwell, Sherlock,” he said, concerned, “What is wrong?”
Sherlock refrained from shaking his head and sat down gingerly. “Just a headache, Victor, don’t fuss,” he replied.
Victor smiled sympathetically; Sherlock buried his head in his hands. The next time he looked up, there was a small silver pill box in front of him. He looked at Victor questioningly.
“Merely a proprietary painkiller,” Victor replied, unfolding his napkin and signalling to a waiter.
Sherlock opened the sprung catch and slipped two of the white tablets into his shirt pocket.
“Better take them now,” Victor said. “You’ll feel more able to eat breakfast if you do.”
“Frankly, I don’t think I can keep them down at the moment,” Sherlock replied honestly. “I’ll take them a bit later when my stomach’s settled.” He waved the waiter away. “Nothing for me, thanks.”
Victor ate some yoghurt and fruit together with coffee and shook his head gravely over Sherlock’s lack of appetite.
To forestall any further attempts to make him consume something, Sherlock started to talk about the case. “It has to be some kind of card counting racket,” he said thoughtfully, “although the CCTV material is ambivalent to say the least.”
Victor nodded, spearing a slice of melon. “I thought as much,” he replied, “but the perpetrators are proving very elusive. Perhaps the footage from the next few days will throw some light on the situation.”
“Perhaps,” Sherlock replied thoughtfully. “How’s the lawsuit going?” Victor blinked at him and frowned. Sherlock raised his eyebrows. “The lawsuit with your security systems firm, Victor,” he said impatiently, “You know – the disagreement about the update that wiped so much of your data?”
Victor momentarily stopped chewing then the puzzled expression left his face to be replaced with a smile. “Oh, that,” he replied. He shook his head, “Merely a misunderstanding. It caused much inconvenience, but no serious damage.”
“Hugh Ampney seems to think otherwise,” Sherlock commented.
Victor waved the notion away. “Ampney’s a – how do you Londoners put it? – an old woman,” he replied breezily, “Good at his job but worries over trifles. There is nothing wrong with our systems.”
“Except that we’ve now got to wait around for CCTV data over the next few days for comparison rather than having information from the past few months at our fingertips,” Sherlock persisted. “It could take weeks, Victor. That’s time you really don’t have. Every day this goes on, your casino loses money and the people involved become more entrenched. This is the kind of problem I’m used to solving within a few hours, sometimes remotely. It’s intolerable to be hamstrung by this kind of inefficiency.”
Sherlock sighed aggressively. “This is a Six, Victor,” he said bitterly, “I don’t get out of bed for a Six; I rarely leave Baker Street for less than an Eight.”
Victor regarded him placidly over the rim of his coffee cup. “I understand,” he said gravely, “and now that you have seen first-hand how the Belle Époque operates, I have today arranged for you to interview key members of my staff to see if you can deduce any more than I or Ampney have been able to. These are trusted people who have been with us a long while and they know how to keep a confidence. Anything the CCTV would have picked up over the past few weeks, one of them will have noticed.”
Sherlock nodded. “That’s – better,” he replied. He rose from the table and nodded to Victor.
“Enjoy your breakfast,” he said, “I’m going for some air – perhaps it might clear my head. I’ll see you at the Belle Époque in forty minutes to begin my interviews.”
“But Sherlock…” Victor rose from his seat, his napkin falling to the floor, but Sherlock had already taken off, his unnaturally long legs propelling through the dining room at speed to disappear into the foyer and out into the street.
Sherlock walked rapidly along the busy thoroughfare, taking in shops, banks and hotels before turning into a side street, crossing over the road and hailing a taxi. His stomach rumbled alarmingly as he addressed the driver in fluent, idiomatic French, leaped into the back of the car and sank back into the leather seats, pulling out his Blackberry to check his email. He smiled as he took delivery of a message from John:
By the look of that photo shes far too interested in you! Anyway dont forget Im occupied at the moment – my date went very well thank you for asking. Seeing her again tonight – dont wait up;)
The taxi came to a halt just as he finished reading and Sherlock alighted, paying the man and taking off again on foot.
Sherlock found a newsagent on a street corner and purchased three bottles of Volvic with their seals intact, 16 caplets of paracetamol and two packs of assorted sandwiches, all of which he thrust into a plastic carrier bag, because despite all that John said to the contrary, Sherlock did indeed eat and sleep during cases; just not as much as he did between them.
Forty minutes later and feeling considerably more human, Sherlock arrived at the Belle Époque and strode into Victor’s office ready to begin his interviews. By midday, he wished fervently to be back in Baker Street, at Scotland Yard, Mycroft’s house – hell, even the airport.
It’s like beating my head against a brick wall.
He was emailing John over his lunch – half a ham sandwich at 5.30pm accompanied by two more paracetamol washed down with some of the Volvic. Victor had gone to the casino restaurant, clearly rather put out that Sherlock preferred to work. Sherlock had most unfairly pointed out that he was actually saving Victor money in the long run, but Victor was not convinced and had provided Sherlock with a flask of excellent coffee and an exquisite seafood salad. Sherlock knew the coffee was excellent – the aroma as he disposed of the liquid carefully in the ensuite washroom off Victor’s office had been positively mouthwatering. The salad was a little more difficult, but he managed to fit it all into the empty sandwich package and stow it in his carrier bag.
Nobody knows anything at all. I mean it, they honestly don’t. If I didn’t have the reports from the Finance department, I would be convinced that Victor dreamed it all.
Sherlock sat back and re-read his last sentence. His headache had receded into the background and he was beginning to feel his energy returning.
I’m starting to get the idea that I’m being given what is commonly called the “runaround” by these people. The questions are by whom, and why? SH
His finger hovered over the Send key, paused and withdrew. Sherlock sat with his chin in his hands for a moment; John had another date – with the same woman – and yet he hadn’t told Sherlock anything about her, not even her name. Sherlock fidgeted, indecisive. He could ask, of course he could, but Sherlock never evinced any interest in John’s girlfriends on principle. The last thing he wanted was to show the slightest curiosity about John’s love life. At the very least, interest of that kind could potentially result in the latest girlfriend having “a friend who is very pretty, reads your website and is absolutely dying to meet you”. Sherlock shuddered reflexively. And that would not necessarily be the worst outcome he could imagine either, he reflected.
“Cold?” Victor’s voice broke through his reverie. “The air con in this office is set rather high, I’m afraid. Much lower and I tend to fall asleep after lunch.”
Sherlock slapped his hand down on the Send key and stood up, hands on the desk. He sighed.
“Victor,” he began, “I’m getting absolutely nowhere with your staff. Either they’re very, very good at dissembling or there really isn’t anything to discover. To my dismay, I’m beginning to suspect the latter.”
Something rippled across Victor’s face, a momentary disruption of the smooth, urbane façade. It was gone in an instant and Victor leaned across the desk to lay a carefully proprietorial hand on Sherlock’s upper arm.
“You have been working for seven hours without a proper break,” he said, smiling gently. “Sherlock, it is time now to stop. Let me take you for an early dinner at my house. My chef has promised me fresh langoustines with aioli, tarte au citron and a really excellent white Burgundy…”
Sherlock breathed out in exasperation. “Victor, just stop it,” he said forcefully. The other man tripped over his words and fell silent, withdrawing his hand from Sherlock’s arm.
Sherlock took a deep breath and thinned his lips. “This case,” he began, “is a mare’s nest. It is smoke on the water, mist along the woodland path, Alice through the Looking Glass. Nothing is what it seems here, not even you, Victor.”
Victor paused as if uncertain, then relaxed into a chuckle and reached out for the other man’s arm again. “Sherlock, Sherlock,” he said placatingly, “You’re so intense all the time. It’s exciting, believe me, it always was, watching you focus, follow through and solve problems, all at breakneck speed. But here, in Europe, things are different. We take life at a slower pace; we are used to moving more leisurely in the heat, allowing our bodies to dictate the pace at which we function.”
Victor smiled. “Since we both went down from Cambridge,” he continued, “I have often wondered what became of you. I tried to make contact on a number of occasions, but failed to find you. Several years went by and finally you resurfaced; I was overjoyed. Now you are here at last, would it not be good to take some time to renew our friendship? We were very close in Cambridge; it was a time I treasure in my memory. Try to look on these setbacks you are experiencing as blessings in disguise. Monaco is a beautiful part of the world, Sherlock; perhaps you will let me show you some of it, in recompense for your time?”
Sherlock actually had to close his mouth before answering. “Are you…” he paused and frowned, “Are you actually trying to proposition me, Victor?”
His companion smiled serenely and edged his left hand across the desk to where Sherlock was gripping the wood white knuckled. His fingertips brushed gently against Sherlock’s wrist.
“And why not?” Victor replied softly with raised eyebrows, “Doesn’t the idea of reliving those heady days when we were young and carefree appeal to you? Living the student life; punting on the Cam, staying up all night listening to Wagner and debating Nietzsche, champagne breakfasts at Clare after the May Ball – oh, those were indeed the days!” Victor sighed nostalgically and his little finger stroked across Sherlock’s thumb.
Sherlock did not move and to the unwary observer it would appear that he remained completely expressionless. Had John been present, he would have seen the tell-tale signs immediately: the increased respiratory rate, the muscular twitch at the jaw hinge, the minute narrowing of the eyes.
Victor seemed to take Sherlock’s apparent lack of reaction as encouragement. His questing fingers slid gently over Sherlock’s hand and under his cuff, caressing the sensitive skin of his inner wrist. A slight tremor ran through Sherlock’s body at the contact. Still wearing his patient smile, Victor took a step closer into Sherlock’s personal space and raised a hand to caress his jaw, pushing the tips of his fingers gently into the other man’s hair.
“I have missed you,” Victor whispered, his lips almost grazing Sherlock’s mouth as he spoke. “The years have not changed you, Sherlock. You are still svelte and beautiful, still cool and disdainful, untouched and untouchable. You still publicly exhibit your customary derision, to paraphrase one of your famous English actresses, for the hurly burly of the chaise longue.”
Victor smiled and breathed out gently as he traced his lips fleetingly over Sherlock’s jaw.
“But you and I both know differently, don’t we?” Victor continued, the pitch of his voice dropping to a more intimate level. “We know the deep, deep peace of the double bed and the fires that burn beneath the ice, do we not? Once upon a time you let me fan the flames, Sherlock, and I have never, ever forgotten it.”
Victor turned his head to drag his mouth slowly across Sherlock’s cheek. He brought his right hand up to gently cup Sherlock’s jaw and slowly threaded the fingers of the other through Sherlock’s curls. He gasped in surprise as his wrist was caught and held hard as though in a vice.
“Your memories are neither accurate nor pleasant, Victor,” Sherlock finally spoke and his tone had all the shock of a bucket of iced water. Victor froze and frowned uncertainly, his hand still clutched in Sherlock’s hair.
“To begin with,” Sherlock began quietly as though they were still in a business meeting, “whilst in Cambridge, I doubt I could ever have been described as carefree, considering that I was at least two years younger and several eons more knowledgeable and intelligent than any other undergraduate in the country. Neither of those things makes for a comfortable existence. Secondly, I haven’t an inkling who accompanied you when you were punting on the Cam and attending May Balls, but I was not present on any of these occasions. Neither did I listen to Wagner into the small hours – heaven forfend – and any debate on the writings of German philosophers would have had me gnawing off my own right arm in sheer self-defence.”
Sherlock removed Victor’s nerveless hand and pushed himself up off the desk. “So you see, Victor,” he replied, “you may have happy memories of your student days, but don’t expect me to figure very highly in them. Our association was almost entirely physical and it lasted precisely one term, after which we went our separate ways and never crossed each other’s paths again.”
Victor licked his lips. “It was not my doing,” he said defensively. “Sherlock, I would have…”
Sherlock shook his head violently. “Restitution for past sins is really not an issue I care to examine right now,” he interrupted, “I would be much more interested in learning why you think it a good idea to revisit those sins.
“Over the past three days, Victor, I have discovered a number of things,” Sherlock continued, starting to pace the room. “Firstly, the Belle Époque has no shareholders outside the Trevor family and has no debts or liabilities; secondly, Hugh Ampney is indeed Head of Security but overall control vests in the Sys Admin; that is you, Victor; and finally, the Mr V Trevor, CEO who appears on your letterhead and has a 51% controlling interest is not you but is, in fact, your father.”
Victor said nothing; the blood drained from his face leaving it the colour of parchment.
Sherlock took no notice. “I suspected it before,” he continued blithely, “Hugh Ampney’s attitude was strangely ambivalent for such a well-entrenched employee, and your opinion of him was hardly respectful considering his service record. But it was not until I encountered Olivia Ramirez last night that things really fell into place.”
“Ramirez?” Victor frowned. “What was she doing in my casino?”
“Warning me against you, apparently,” Sherlock replied placidly, “although I didn’t pick it up until much later; a reprehensible lapse on my part, although understandable in light of later revelations. She talked about “Victor” and also about “Mr Trevor” – I should be shot for not having spotted immediately that she was referring to two different people.”
“Sherlock,” Victor began again, “it’s not what…”
“Oh, I’m sure it isn’t, Victor,” Sherlock continued. “You’re certainly responsible for the shortfall; that much is obvious. You’ve been syphoning off the profits, haven’t you? Very cleverly, I have to admit; actually at the tables rather than from the accounting system. You had the sense to omit the roulette wheel but you should have left the slot machines out of the equation too, that was the clincher for me. What is it, Victor? Gambling debts? How very ironic for someone in your business, but I understand it’s not uncommon.”
“Alright,” Victor was looking sick. “Alright, yes; what you say is true. I’m responsible for the losses, all of them.” His voice was hurried, hesitant.
“And you arranged for the software glitch to wipe the CCTV footage? Why was that?” Sherlock persisted in a hard voice.
“To put you off the scent,” Victor whispered.
Sherlock clicked his thumb and second finger. “Of course!” he hissed. “Misdirection – I knew it! You weren’t worried I’d spot something amiss in the footage; you were trying to hide what wasn’t there! You wanted me to hare off in pursuit of some phantom card-counting gang.”
Sherlock’s triumphant grin faded into a frown. “But why?” he asked rhetorically, suddenly quiet.
Sherlock rounded on Victor. “Whose idea was it to hire me for this case?” he demanded, “Yours or your father’s?”
Victor blinked. “Why, mine,” he replied uncertainly. “The Cambridge connection, you know – plus the intrigue and the good fee. I was sure you would come.”
Sherlock narrowed his eyes. “Interesting,” he said softly. “If you’d said it was your father’s idea I might have had a little more belief in this charade at least for a while, but you, Victor – oh, you know much better than to pit your wits against mine. By the way, where exactly is your father, Victor? It’s still gambling season, if there is such a thing; he should be here in his beloved casino but no, he’s conspicuous by his absence. Why? Where is he?”
“He’s – on a business trip…” Victor was starting to sweat; Sherlock couldn’t help but notice that this was a very unattractive look on him.
“Absolute balderdash!” Sherlock thundered. Victor visibly flinched.
“Stop lying to me!” Sherlock continued at the same volume. “Is he still in Monte Carlo, Victor? Or has he gone on a long walk off a short pier? There’s plenty of convenient ocean around here to dispose of the body. Or perhaps you decided to go further afield? Maybe he’s actually hidden in the casino somewhere? Or even at your house? Talk to me, Victor: is your father still alive?”
“I – I don’t know,” Victor managed. His face was haggard and his hands trembled.
Sherlock stared at his erstwhile friend and colleague while the man visibly crumpled in front of him.
Victor sat down in the visitor’s chair and buried his head in his hands. “Father took a trip to Paris a fortnight ago,” he began in muffled tones. “He flew out from Nice; he often took a long weekend to go to the opera. It wasn’t a secret.”
Victor swallowed and began again. “When he didn’t come home as he usually did on the Monday morning, I made some enquiries, tried to get in touch with him. I was actually on the phone to the airport when my secretary showed a man into my office.
“He was a very nondescript kind of person,” Victor continued, “brown hair, brown eyes, light skin, medium-quality suit, etc. etc. He told me he knew where my father was and that he was in a lot of trouble. I demanded more information and as we talked I realised that this was a kidnap situation.”
“Why didn’t you contact the police?” Sherlock demanded.
Victor stared at him in disgust. “You’re so clever and you say something like that,” he retorted.
Sherlock frowned. “Wait a minute,” he said, starting to pace again. “You said this was a fortnight ago? And the implication is that you syphoned off the money to pay the ransom? But that doesn’t make sense – the dip in profits has been happening for months…”
Sherlock turned back to Victor. “You got into the system,” he breathed. “You hacked the accounting programme and you planted the data; you made it seem as though the money had been disappearing bit by bit but in reality…” Sherlock pushed a frantic hand through his hair. “Victor, for the love of all that’s holy, why?”
The other man just sat white-faced, staring at the ground, shaking his head over and over again.
“This wasn’t ever about the Belle Époque, was it?” Sherlock said wonderingly, “It wasn’t about money and it wasn’t about the Trevor family either – you were just collateral damage. It was about me, wasn’t it Victor? Me! The question is why?”
Sherlock gripped Victor’s jaw and forced him to meet his eyes. “What was the price of your father’s life, Victor?” he demanded. The other man struggled but Sherlock gripped hard enough to bruise.
“Your – your presence here,” Victor managed. “They wanted you to come here; that’s all, I swear it!”
“And you complied so beautifully, didn’t you, Victor?” Sherlock released him and walked over to the desk. “You set up a puzzle that you knew I wouldn’t be able to resist. You offered me a generous fee, a sumptuous suite in a top class hotel, the opportunity to see Monte Carlo…”
Sherlock trailed off and turned back to the other man. “And the resumption of an association deemed to be unfinished, at least on my part,” he said coldly. “Did they tell you to seduce me, Victor, or was that just improvisation on your part?”
Victor flushed and lowered his eyes.
Sherlock smiled ironically. “Very well,” he continued, “Time to come clean, as Chief Inspector Lestrade would say. Who is responsible for this? What do you know?”
Victor shook his head. “Nothing, I swear it,” he protested. “My instructions were to get you out of England and set you up here with me…”
“Out of England?” Sherlock repeated, eyes wide. “Not in Monte specifically, just away from home. But why? And why you?” He stared at Victor who shook his head miserably.
Sherlock’s eyes widened. “Whoever they are, they did their research,” he murmured. “They knew about Cambridge and they gambled that I just might still hold a torch for you. This case, this whole charade was designed to keep me occupied and off balance while you tried to stay ahead of me.”
Sherlock reached in his pocket and held out two white pills on the palm of his hand.
“And this helped,” he continued, “Proprietary painkillers, Victor? Yes, they look very much like normal paracetamol, don’t they?” He gripped one of the pills between finger and thumb and pushed it millimetres from Victor’s haggard face. “Flunitrazepam, otherwise known as Rohypnol, the so-called “date rape” drug. If I’d taken them, I’d have gone out like a light and I’d have remembered nothing.”
Sherlock flung both pills violently away from him into a corner of the room. Victor’s head jerked up; he flushed deeply. “I would never…” he began in anguish.
“Oh, I’m quite sure you wouldn’t,” Sherlock interrupted breezily. “The amounts you introduced into my food and drink were insufficient for anything nefarious. They merely served to keep me confused, my mind muddled. If you could make certain that I was functioning on only two out of four cylinders, you thought that you might be able to stay one step ahead of me for a day or two longer, isn’t that so, Victor?”
Sherlock threw one more contemptuous look at his former friend then he sighed, thrust his hands in his pockets and made for the door.
“Where are you going?” Victor demanded, springing up from his chair in pursuit.
“Back to London,” Sherlock responded over his shoulder without pausing.
“But – but you can’t!” Victor protested, following Sherlock out of the door.
“I can and I will,” Sherlock strode down the short corridor and out into the Belle Époque’s main lounge area. The cleaners were still vacuuming and polishing in preparation for the evening’s gaming. Sherlock strode through, neatly avoiding trailing wires and out of place tables, followed closely by Victor who was almost running in his panic.
“Sherlock, please,” Victor panted. Sherlock ignored him, striding through the foyer and out of the revolving door into the street, Victor hard on his heels.
“Sherlock!” Victor grabbed Sherlock’s sleeve, forcing him to turn. “You can’t leave Monaco. If you do, they’ll kill my father!”
“Have they told you this?” Sherlock demanded.
Victor shook his head. “Not in so many words, no,” he replied, “but the threat is there. Sherlock, I’ve failed. Even with our history, I’ve only managed to keep you here for a mere two days – they said it had to be a week minimum. How do you think they’re going to react? For pity’s sake, Sherlock…”
“You have only one sensible course of action, Victor,” Sherlock replied in a low tone. “Paying off kidnappers with no bargaining counter of your own rarely brings a good result. Tell me who they are and what their business is with me and I will do my utmost to protect both you and your father.”
Victor’s face twisted in agony and he shook his head. “I’ve told you all I know,” he replied unconvincingly.
“Don’t lie,” Sherlock replied implacably and without rancour. “Tell me the truth.”
Sherlock and Victor made a tense tableau while pedestrians and cyclists milled around them. Victor’s face twisted in an agony of indecision. He stared pleadingly into Sherlock pitiless eyes but whatever he saw there caused him to shake his head; his shoulders slumped. Sherlock turned on his heel and made as if to walk away. In clear terror, Victor grabbed for Sherlock’s sleeve, missing his grasp as the other man jerked away. Victor rocked back on his heels in compensation, overbalanced and fell backwards off the kerb into the stream of rush hour traffic.
Sherlock’s eyes widened in horror; he darted forward instantly, hands outstretched to grab for Victor. He was too late. There was a thud and a horrible squeal of brakes together with a collective cry of shock and dismay from Sherlock’s fellow pedestrians. Sherlock turned away, his face settling into its customary expressionless mask, but his eyes were shadowed.
Twelve hours later found Sherlock in his hotel suite, packing at speed. He drew a hand through his hair and supressed a yawn, this time of genuine rather than drug-induced weariness. At least Victor’s condition was now stable, despite the crushed leg, the skull fracture and the emergency surgery to stop the internal bleeding. The head injury had caused the most concern of course, but the scan results had been encouraging and although Victor was currently in a coma, the medics had full confidence that he would wake within a few days.
Sherlock urgently needed to check out and get back to London. The information he had managed to wring out of Victor, sparse as it was, only served to make him increasingly worried as time went on. He flung open the wardrobe door and started to throw his clothes into his suitcase, only pausing briefly to hang the borrowed evening suit and shirt neatly in the wardrobe. He slipped the cufflinks into an envelope addressed to Victor care of the Belle Époque and left it with the desk clerk before leaving for Nice in a taxi.
It was only after reaching the airport that things started to go seriously pear-shaped. Sherlock left his baggage at the Check-In desk and walked through security with his hand luggage. As he submitted to a body search and watched his valuables roll through the scanner, he was approached by a uniformed officer.
“Mr Holmes? Would you come with me, sir,” the man said in polite but uncompromising tones. Sherlock paused for an instant then swung on his heel as though to comply, arresting the motion halfway through in order to scoop up his wallet, laptop and other valuables from the tray.
“No, sir,” the officer said, turning back, “we can return for those later.”
“No need,” Sherlock replied, strapping his watch back onto his wrist with a broad smile. “I have them here. Shall we go?” He swept off in the indicated direction, all his mental alarms blaring loud and clear.
There turned out to be a problem with his hotel bill and with some property of Victor Trevor’s that Sherlock had apparently not returned. Sherlock found himself hanging on to his temper by his fingernails as he explained, for the third time, where the monogrammed cufflinks were and also where the borrowed dinner suit had been left. This took upwards of thirty minutes to establish and by this time, Sherlock’s plane had already left.
Oddly, the airline couldn’t seem to find Sherlock another seat on a London-bound plane until the small hours of the following morning. By this time Sherlock was so wound up he even briefly considered texting Mycroft but the rising bile in his throat at the possible payback stayed his hand. Instead, he set text after text to John until he got a reply.
Delayed. Bored. SH
Where are you? SH
I thought office hours started later. Are you ignoring me? SH
The smell of Burger King is nauseating. Even the coffee is sour. Why can’t airports provide the weary traveller with something better than reconstituted offal and brown-dyed water? SH
Nothing in the newspapers, even BBC World news is dull. Read that novel everyone’s raving about – Fifty Shades of Gray. Absolute rubbish, fairytales – don’t bother. SH
Sherlock logged onto the airport wifi between texts and was reading an article about the polyphonic motets of the late Renaissance composer Orlando de Lassus when his text alert chimed.
Sorry I havent replied, v. busy. I could say dont text me at work but im not there – things are so quiet I decided to finish early and go on a bit of a break. Yes, with the girlfriend – thats going really well. Squared it with Sarah. Sorry I wont be there when you get back but to be fair you didnt let me know you were coming home. You said youd be away for at least a week. Im in transit at the moment so ill email again later – no im not going to tell you where we’re going.
Sherlock very rarely swore but the phrase John used occasionally – what the fuck? – came to mind almost immediately. That John had gone away for a few days’ R&R was not implausible. That John had taken a companion, female, with him was not impossible. That John had gone away for a holiday with a female he had met only days before was also not unbelievable, just very, very unlikely.
Sherlock’s immediate response was to phone the surgery. After a vigorous argument with the Head Receptionist, Sherlock finally got himself put through to Sarah herself.
“Sherlock, I’d be grateful if you could refrain from terrorising my staff,” she began. She sounded tired and harassed.
“I’m looking for John,” Sherlock interrupted tersely. “Can you tell me where he is?”
“John?” Sarah replied, puzzled. “He has a few days’ leave – he said he’d squared it with you.”
“Think carefully, Sarah,” Sherlock said seriously. “When did he arrange it?”
It turned out that John’s leave seemed to have been on the office system for a week or so. Sarah claimed to have spoken to John about his holiday some days ago, but when Sherlock pressed her, she admitted that this discussion had actually happened by email.
“And you have no idea who he is with?” Sherlock confirmed.
“Well, no,” Sarah admitted. “He didn’t mention a companion and apart from a couple of standalone dates, as far as I know he’s been single ever since that Christmas party when Jeannette – well ancient history and all that.”
Sherlock bit his bottom lip. He thanked Sarah and hung up, already speed-dialling Mrs Hudson. He received the same story, only this time John had left a typed note through her letterbox.
Sherlock hung up, frowned for a moment in thought then leaped out of his seat and made for the small chemist in the airport shopping section.
At around 3am, Sherlock’s eyes snapped suddenly open at a flash of bright light to find a group of three Korean tourists standing in his personal space and taking photographs of him. A steward politely asked if he would like to move to a less central area where there were large bed-like structures especially provided for those travellers obliged to spend their sleeping hours in the Departure Lounge. Sherlock snapped that the airport resources would be better spent providing more flights rather than paying minions to harass perfectly harmless travellers, but the full-length lie-down and the three nicotine patches purchased at the airport pharmacy had done their work for him. He rose, looked about for his forgotten luggage and stalked off to check the progress of his flight.
Departure was apparently on time. Sherlock checked in his luggage once again and wheeled the trolley away with his cabin case still on it. He put his trolley back in the designated area and reached for the case, intending to go straight to Boarding. He frowned thoughtfully at a twisted strap which he didn't remember having twisted himself, and decided to pay a visit to the gents before getting on the plane.
To his total lack of surprise, Sherlock was stopped going through Security, and body searched. He glanced over to the counter to see his hold luggage and its contents spread out over a table, already being dissected by begloved security officers. Sherlock gave an inner sigh and braced himself for the worst.
He was quite right to be apprehensive. He was shown by a member of the airport police into a small room containing a chair, a desk and a counter. There was nothing else in the room except several securely locked cupboards. Sherlock knew they were locked because he picked them within moments, examining the contents and declaring them to be routine. Forty minutes later, he realised he was about to become intimately acquainted with certain of the routine contents as a middle-aged male in a white coat entered the room, snapped on a pair of latex gloves and brusquely instructed Sherlock to strip. He set his teeth and did so without comment or complaint. After all, he had nothing to be ashamed of.
Another twenty minutes went by wherein Sherlock was left completely alone and stark naked in the room while his clothes were minutely examined. After this, the white-coated man returned, presented Sherlock with identification which confirmed that he was a medical doctor and informed him that under the powers granted to the airline by British anti-terrorism legislation, Sherlock was obliged to undergo a cavity search.
“Anti-terrorism?” Sherlock responded acidly, “I take it you think I’m stupid enough to shove a grenade where the sun doesn’t shine, hmm?” Sherlock realised he was unconsciously channelling John. The thought made him smile; he spread his hands. “Be my guest; one more idiot is hardly going to make a great deal of difference.”
The procedure was quick and uncomfortable, if not exactly painful for someone of Sherlock’s experience. Afterwards, he was given what looked like a hospital gown to cover his modesty and left to twiddle his thumbs for another forty minutes.
All things considered, Sherlock kept his temper remarkably well, especially when none of the searches turned up anything of note (fortunately). He was summarily ushered back into his clothes and back into the Departure Lounge, his packing ruined and his backside aching, with little more than a faintly apologetic murmur from the airport police. Sherlock sighed. The look he had exchanged with the head honcho had confirmed what he already knew; this had nothing to do with terrorism. Someone had sicced them on to him; someone who knew about his history with substance abuse.
Sherlock was met outside Security by a representative of his airline who was effusive in his apologies. Sherlock’s plane, he was told, had long since departed but he had been checked onto another flight which was leaving within the hour. His hold luggage would be repacked and transferred onto the new flight, all Sherlock had to do was accompany the airline rep through boarding. Sherlock endured the man’s contrition for as long as he could then put a hand on his arm, halting the flow.
“This is very kind,” Sherlock said, managing a small smile, “but I really have to visit the facilities before I get on the plane. After – after what I have been through, you must understand…” he trailed off, looking realistically pained. The rep nodded, quickly suppressing a fleeting look of horror.
“Of course,” he said, “you have plenty of time before the flight leaves. I’m very happy to wait for you…” Sherlock strode off towards the Gents without a backward glance.
Once there, he locked himself inside a cubicle, sat on the closed toilet lid and hefted his cabin case onto his lap. He carefully unpacked it, noting that most of his toiletries had been interfered with, placing the items inside the lid of the case. He ran his fingers around the bottom seam, encountering an inconsistency in the stitching. Gripping it between finger and thumb, he pulled releasing a very thin, very sharp scalpel. Within seconds, Sherlock had ripped into the base of the case and pulled away an x-ray resistant lining. Behind it was a passport, a credit card and a thin wedge of English banknotes. Sherlock pocketed them, shovelled the remaining contents back into his case and fished out his sponge bag. He rummaged through its contents, setting aside one or two objects, finally frowning thoughtfully at a small canister of talcum powder.
Fifteen minutes later, the airline rep, anxiously watching the door of the Gents, noticed an elderly gentleman shuffle slowly out of the facility. His hair was greying, dull with scurf and hung in a matted curtain over one side of his face, his non-descript trousers and jacket were creased and a bit on the grubby side and he walked with a stoop, blinking through black-rimmed spectacles. He lifted his cabin case onto a trolley and walked slowly away, head down, towards Enquiries.
Sherlock handed over his passport and credit card, purchasing a single ticket, no luggage, to Heathrow on a plane departing within the next hour. It would have been safer by far, he knew, to have travelled to Birmingham or to one of the other provincial airports and taken the train to London, but a nagging feeling of urgency in the back of his mind made him decide to take the quicker, riskier route. He spent the intervening time in the bar nursing a tonic water with ice and lemon for local colour, trying to ignore the overpowering smell of Johnsons Baby Powder on his clothes and hair.
Boarding was uneventful, as was Security; in fact, a young steward with a twinkle in his eye took a shine to Sherlock’s elderly gentleman and gave him an aisle seat and a free coffee. Age is a horrible disadvantage, Sherlock thought with some amusement, except when you need to be underestimated.
Several hours later, an eighteen year-old Filipino, employed on a casual basis as part of the night cleaning crew at Nice airport, was listlessly pushing a mop into an inaccessible corner in one of the Departure Lounge toilets when his eye was caught by something unusual in a litter bin. Tentatively, he reached in and removed a polythene bag filled with a quantity of white powder. By this time, Sherlock was, of course, long gone.
Sherlock spent the flight with an airline eye mask over his face and noise-cancelling earbuds in his ears, trying to mentally block out the screaming children, the laughter of the holidaymakers and the endless chimes summoning the cabin crew. As the plane banked preparatory to landing at Heathrow, the friendly steward leaned over Sherlock to reposition his seat for landing and found his wrist gripped tightly and suddenly.
“Please, sir,” the steward said quietly, trying to pull away, “Your tray.”
Sherlock pushed away the mask, fixed the man with a careful stare then nodded and released him. The steward stowed the tray and walked away giving Sherlock a scared look as he rubbed his wrist. Sherlock sat back in his seat and let his eyes wander around the cabin. He detected nothing unusual and hoped against hope that it would stay that way.
Taking five inches off his height was an exhausting business, Sherlock concluded as he moved slowly and painfully through Immigration. His passport was apparently scrutinised minutely then promptly forgotten and M’sieur Alexandre Vernet, French citizen aged 73, shuffled carefully and patiently away to disappear into the throngs of dispersing travellers.
Once outside the terminal building, Sherlock switched on his phone and called John’s number – no more messing about with texts. The call went immediately to voicemail.
“Call me back immediately,” was Sherlock’s terse message. He tried to brush away the talcum from his jacket and hair; it proved remarkably stubborn.
Sherlock took a taxi directly to Baker Street and, taking the steps at a run, cabin case in hand, ploughed straight into Mrs Hudson.
“Oh, Sherlock!” she exclaimed, standing on tiptoe to hug him round the neck. “You’re back early – I wasn’t expecting you till next week! Goodness, you are a mess, love. What have you done to your hair?”
“Change of plan, Mrs Hudson,” Sherlock replied, returning the hug briefly. “I urgently need to establish John’s whereabouts.”
Mrs Hudson gave him a mysterious smile and put her head on one side.
“I don’t know that I should tell you,” she said mischievously. Sherlock tightened his jaw and forced his impatience back down.
“Mrs Hudson,” Sherlock said seriously, “I hold, as you are aware, a great regard for the Doctor and I have no wish to interrupt an amorous dalliance…”
But Mrs Hudson was shaking her head and laughing. “Oh, no,” she told him firmly, “you won’t get round me like that. The doctor said he’d take the opportunity to get away for a few days while you were abroad. He didn’t actually mention that a young lady was involved, but I can read between the lines as well as anyone.”
“He said that?” Sherlock asked. Mrs Hudson looked less sure.
“Well, no,” she replied, “I didn’t actually see him, but it’s what he put in his note – here.” She disappeared into her flat for a moment and returned with a folded sheet of white A4. Sherlock opened it and read:
Dear Mrs Hudson,
Just so as you won’t worry, Sherlock is likely to be away on business for around a fortnight and now my week on double shifts is over, I have some leave booked. I’ve decided to take a few days away from it all to get some rest and relaxation. Just in case Sherlock reads this, I won’t tell you where I’m going – it would be just my luck if he came home early and decided he couldn’t live without me.
Sherlock squinted at the print and identified it as from his own inkjet. He read the note again, more for something to do than anything else, and bit his bottom lip.
“Do you have any idea at all…?” he compressed his mouth briefly at Mrs Hudson’s regretful headshake.
“Very well,” Sherlock straightened his shoulders and moved over to the stairs. “Mrs Hudson, I’ll be in and out for the next few days. It’s likely to be a bit of a rough ride, unfortunately.”
Mrs Hudson looked anxious and Sherlock reached out to touch her shoulder.
“I’m very sorry,” he said, uncharacteristically serious, “Life is about to get extremely complicated for me and for anyone associated with me and I’m afraid that for the moment, there’s absolutely nothing I can do about it. Mrs Hudson, I would consider it a personal favour if you could see your way to getting out of London for a week or so. Perhaps you could stay with your sister?”
“Sherlock!” Mrs Hudson stared at him in shock then narrowed her eyes suspiciously. “What have you done?”
Sherlock shook his head. “I wish I knew,” he replied; the words burned like acid.
Chief Inspector Lestrade’s head jerked up from the mountain of reports he was reading as his office door was flung open with such force that it crashed back on its hinges. The whirlwind that was Sherlock Holmes suddenly filled all the empty space, sucking all the oxygen out of the room. Lestrade swallowed and tried to glare.
Sherlock ignored him. “Lestrade,” he said urgently, “I need you to tell me exactly; when was the last time you saw or heard from John?”
Lestrade laid down his pen. “And welcome home, Sherlock, nice to see you. How was Monte?” he said with politely raised eyebrows.
Sherlock made an impatient noise. “Don’t mess about, Lestrade,” he protested, “this is serious.”
Lestrade smirked. “Sherlock,” he said, “John has gone on a holiday; he texted me before he set off. I don’t know where he’s gone and even if I did, I wouldn’t tell you. John deserves a break and if you decided to cut your case in Monte short, that’s your problem not his.”
“Don’t be obtuse, Lestrade,” Sherlock snapped, “I need to know his whereabouts – it’s important!”
“So is John’s holiday,” Lestrade replied. He placed his hands on the desk, gripping the edge. “Sherlock, the man follows you around like a bloodhound, he’s at your beck and call even when he’s trying to take a girl out on a date. Just leave him in peace for once.” Lestrade spread his hands wide. “It’s only a couple of days, for Pete’s sake.”
Sherlock ground his teeth. “Lestrade, you don’t understand…” he tried.
“I understand only too well,” Lestrade insisted. “Go home, Sherlock; let John have his fun.”
Sherlock’s shoulder slumped. He turned as if to exit the room then whirled quickly to face Lestrade once more. He snapped his fingers.
“Incident reports!” he exclaimed. “Lestrade, get me all the incident reports from the past seven days from around the Baker Street area. Also the area served by the surgery where John works.”
“Wha…?” Lestrade gaped. “This isn’t a public library and I am not your PA! Sherlock…”
“And for the sake of completeness, I need information on any unidentified bodies that have come in over the same period,” Sherlock continued expressionlessly.
“I can’t…” Lestrade began.
Sherlock waved a hand. “Oh, don’t worry, just the incident reports will do for now,” he said, “Molly will have the necessary information for me by the time I’ve finished here.”
Lestrade clearly could not resist a smirk. He pointed an index finger at Sherlock. “That’s where you’re wrong, sunshine,” he told him. “You’re going to find it tough going at St. Barts for quite a while: Molly’s had a temporary transfer to Manchester – they’ve got a backlog needs clearing. I doubt her replacement will be as accommodating.”
Sherlock frowned, clearly puzzled. “And this happened, when?” he demanded.
Lestrade shrugged. “A day or so ago,” he replied, “Last time I called they told me.”
Sherlock nodded. “Get me the necessary permissions,” he demanded flatly.
Lestrade’s face darkened. “Look here, Sherlock,” he grated, “you can’t just swan in here and expect me to…”
Sherlock slammed his hand down on Lestrade’s desk, his face an inch away from the Inspector’s.
“Can’t you get it through your tiny little brain?” he shouted, “This is important!”
“It always is!” Lestrade roared back. The two squared off, each as furious as the other.
“Er, excuse me, sir?” There was a polite tap on the door and Sherlock whirled round to see Sally Donovan leaning against the frame clutching a file, her lips twitching.
Lestrade gave Sherlock one final glare then sank back into his chair and breathed out heavily. “Yes, Donovan,” he said resignedly, “what is it?”
“It’s Mr Sinclair to see you, sir,” she replied. “You said to let you know when he arrived.”
“Yes, Donovan, thank you,” Lestrade replied, still glaring at Sherlock. When she didn’t leave immediately, he turned the glare on her.
“He’s, well, a bit impatient,” Donovan continued, almost apologetically. “After all, he’s here voluntarily, sir. He’s doing us a big favour on the Penrose case.”
“I know, I know,” Lestrade replied resignedly. He rose from his desk; Sherlock caught his sleeve.
“Just let me see the computer logs,” Sherlock insisted.
“Are you kidding?” Lestrade spluttered, “I wouldn’t let you loose on the office systems without an armed guard.”
Lestrade hesitated and Sherlock rode over him before he could overthink it.
“Get Donovan to log on for me,” Sherlock suggested, “she’s more effective than any Rottweiler.” He sighed and drew a hand through his hair. “Look,” he said, his tone oozing reasonableness, “surely it’s better to have someone choose what kind of access I get? The only reason I want to go in via the front door is because I’m in a hurry and it’ll take me too long to hack in.”
Lestrade glared one final time then Sherlock turned his face away to hide his smirk as he registered the miniscule defeated slump of the policeman’s shoulders.
“Alright then,” Lestrade said waving then beckoning to Donovan, “Alright, Sherlock; you can use my office. Don’t break into my desk!”
Sherlock’s triumph was short-lived. The volume of incidents reported was really quite high for the time of year. It didn’t help that Donovan seemed to take great delight in breathing down his neck, nor was it in any way useful that he really had no idea what he was looking for.
After two hours, Sherlock flung himself back in Lestrade’s chair with a muttered curse. Donovan looked up from Lestrade’s in-tray and smirked. “Found something too difficult for you, freak?” she demanded callously.
Sherlock glared. “That would be impossible in this establishment,” he retorted loftily. Donovan moved behind him to peer over Sherlock’s shoulder making him shift uneasily. Sherlock detested being tailgated by anyone; that it was Sally Donovan made his situation even less bearable.
Reading the screen, Donovan gave a bark of laughter. “God, that one?” she leaned over Sherlock’s shoulder to point at the screen. “Why have you earmarked that? Wasted an hour of DC Michaels’ time – complete nutter.”
“Really,” muttered Sherlock absently, fingers like lightning over the keys.
“Yeah,” Donovan nodded. “Elderly sisters, one in her eighties with Parkinsons, the other – the sole carer mind, bloody Social Services – in her seventies with early stages of dementia according to her GP.” She scratched her head. “At least, that’s what the surgery said he said at any rate; we didn’t get to speak to him in person.”
“Oh?” Sherlock murmured, reading the screen.
“Yeah,” Donovan replied, “he was on holiday; which is funny actually, when you consider what the substance of the incident was.”
Sherlock froze. He swung his chair around slowly until he was glaring straight into Donovan’s face. “What,” he growled, “did you just say?”
“She was very agitated, kept changing her story.” DC Michaels was a young, fresh-faced officer, clearly still clinging to the idea of policing as a vocation. He took a long pull at his tea and sat back in his chair. Sherlock perched on the table next to him and nodded encouragingly. Around them the Yard staff milled with all the noise and bustle of the teatime rush.
“Go on,” Sherlock said. “What was the story?”
DC Michaels frowned in concentration. “Well,” he replied, “it’s pretty much like I said in my report. She called us in ‘cause she said she needed her GP. We told her to call the surgery but she insisted that something dreadful had happened. She was very distressed and worried so they sent me round to calm her down, if nothing else, and see what needed to be done. It turned out that she had already seen her GP that morning, although she didn’t seem to think she had.”
“How could you be sure of that?” Sherlock asked.
Michaels blinked. “The sister suffers from Parkinson’s – she was asleep or as good as all the time we was there,” he replied. “The box of medication was new; it had today’s date on it.”
“How do you know that it hadn’t just been delivered by the pharmacy?” Sherlock persisted.
Michaels shook his head. “The chemist’s only delivers on Mondays,” he replied. “According to the surgery, their GPs always check for outstanding prescriptions before doing their house calls. Saves time and worry.”
Sherlock turned in his chair and leaned over the table, looming over the young policeman. “I’d like you to think very carefully,” he said quietly. “What exactly did Miss Marsh say had happened to her when you arrived? The first version, I mean.”
DC Michaels gave a helpless smile and shook his head. “She said she was worried ‘cause there’d been a lot of traffic in the street,” he replied. “There’d been a motorbike and a car and they’d made quite a lot of noise.”
“Was that all?” Sherlock prompted.
“In the confusion,” Michaels continued, “her GP finished his visit and, apparently, vanished.”
“Into thin air?”
“Not what she said but, yeah, I guess.”
“What did she say? Exactly, now.”
“She said he had gone.”
“Gone completely, she said, with the car and the motorbike.”
DC Michaels drained off his now cold tea and stood up.
“Sorry, Mr Holmes,” he said apologetically, “That’s all I can tell you. I’m back on duty now. Hope I was of some help.”
Sherlock nodded slowly, rubbing his thumb over his bottom lip. “Yes,” he replied, “I expect you do.”
The door man at the Diogenes Club glared at Sherlock disapprovingly but allowed him through the door with reluctance. Sherlock glanced around the dimly lit vestibule, taking in the smell of furniture wax, the gleam of polished brass and the discreet swish of staff moving at a slow pace on noiseless rubber soles.
He was shown into a gracious although well-worn room with rather better lighting than the foyer. He sat by a window in a leather armchair for exactly ten minutes before a waiter invited him to follow, all in total silence.
The office he was shown into was the antithesis of everything else in the club, being furnished in a practical, modern style, heated by radiators and, more importantly, lit by strong, natural light. Sherlock took the visitor’s chair, sat back and stared at the occupant of the desk. Mycroft Holmes’ senior assistant, whom Sherlock knew as Anthea, stared back, inscrutable and composed.
“How can I be of assistance to you, Mr Holmes?” she enquired politely.
“You can’t,” Sherlock responded bluntly. “I wish to see my brother. Kindly inform him of the fact.”
Anthea’s beautiful features hardly twitched. “I’m sorry but Mr Holmes Senior is unavailable at present,” she replied smoothly.
“Don’t be ridiculous!” Sherlock scoffed. “He can’t still be sulking, surely.”
Anthea made no reply.
“Look,” Sherlock continued, gritting his teeth, “after many years of fraternal rivalry, I regret to say that for the first time I find myself in a situation that seems to necessitate my brother’s assistance. Will you be good enough to tell him that?”
Anthea smiled. She really was very beautiful, Sherlock decided, in a detached, icy sort of way.
“Mr Holmes rarely gives me details,” Anthea began in a measured tone, “particularly where events do not directly concern me, but in your case he decided to break that particular caveat. The circumstances of your last meeting with your brother make your appearance here rather a surprise, Mr Holmes. To cover every eventuality, I was given a set of responses to make should this moment ever arise. I will now fulfil them.”
Anthea folded her hands together on the blotter in front of her. “Mr Mycroft Holmes desires that you cease and desist forthwith any attempt to contact him in the near or distant future,” she said, her voice and face completely expressionless. “He considers that in view of your very divergent lifestyles and your differing opinions on national politics, further discourse between you would be counterproductive. He also would like to point out the glaring errors and incompetence you displayed in your handling of the Trevor case and would respectfully enquire if you are possibly losing your touch.”
It was uncanny the way Anthea’s voice moulded itself to his brother’s mannerisms and phrasing, Sherlock mused as she continued to speak. His brain leaped down several different pathways then abruptly snapped to attention at something she said. He shook his head and frowned.
“Would – you mind repeating that?” he asked. Anthea blinked slowly.
“I said that in view of the number of highly dubious and dangerous situations to which your putative career has subjected your partner and flatmate,” she repeated calmly, “it would be completely understandable to any and all who have contact with you if he decided the two of you needed to part company.”
Sherlock leaned his chin in his hands, narrowing his eyes. He ran the knuckle of his index finger over his bottom lip.
“My brother does not anticipate being accessible to me in the near future?” he said at last. He examined her expressionless face intently.
Anthea shook her head. “Not at the current time,” she replied.
“And you yourself?”
A muscular twitch at her temple, so tiny as to be missed by anyone not actually looking for it, caught Sherlock’s attention.
“I regret to inform you that I also will not be available to you for the foreseeable future,” she returned.
Sherlock nodded slowly several times and rose to his feet without breaking eye contact; Anthea mirrored the action.
“Then I will take my leave of you,” Sherlock said politely. Anthea paused for a moment then carefully offered her hand to be shaken. Sherlock frowned but her expression did not change. Slowly, he wrapped his long fingers around her tiny ones and was immediately impressed by the strength of her grip. On his release, Sherlock surreptitiously kneaded his mashed fingers behind his back and tried not to wince. He bowed slightly in valediction before turning on his heel; Anthea’s face did not move a muscle.
Sherlock strode from the Diogenes Club with renewed determination. He stopped at a pedestrian crossing, waiting impatiently for the lights to change.
“Lucky heather, dearie?”
The woman wore the usual ill-assorted, shapeless collection of rags that most of the homeless in London ended up with, but Sherlock stood still as she pinned a flower to his lapel. He missed the lights but managed to slip some folding money into the woman’s pocket as she bent over him.
Back at 221B, Mrs Hudson appeared to be out. Sherlock bounded up the stairs and into his living room without pausing to take off his jacket. He ripped the small flower from his lapel and dissected it carefully, unravelling the tape holding it together. Inside was a handwritten note wrapped around a tiny micro SD card.
Sherlock grabbed his computer and swore under his breath as he realised he had no converter for a micro SD. Crashing into John’s room, he turned his friend’s top drawer upside down over his bed, searching frantically through socks, underwear, photographs, chargers and all the usual detritus for what he seemed to know had to be there.
Backtrack a couple of steps – photographs?
Curious, Sherlock rifled through them quickly: several of Harry including one of her with her arm around a stunning brunette; a creased and worn picture of a smiling older woman (mother?); an instant polaroid of John with Sarah at the Chinese Circus (good lord!); two small snaps of a very sun-bleached John in fatigues horsing around playing footie with a group of young Afghan lads against a desert background, a Rugby team photo featuring a grinning John in the front row… Sherlock’s forehead creased in a frown as he stared at a blurry snap, clearly taken at Angelo’s, of a confused-looking John, his fork suspended above a half-empty plate, with Sherlock in profile as he stared oblivious out of the window. It must have been taken during the case John whimsically entitled Study in Pink. But how did it come about – and more to the point, why did John keep it?
Sherlock blinked, shook his head and deliberately scotched that line of thought, filing it away for later perusal. Distraction was not an option; he pushed the photographs into a rough pile and shoved them back into the drawer.
Finding what he needed, Sherlock rushed back into the living room, pushed the tiny chip into the converter and shoved it quickly into the SD card slot on his computer. Eagerly, he leaned over the table, waiting for the machine to read it.
As the information on the tiny card was gradually revealed, Sherlock’s habitual frown of concentration gave way to something graver and more serious. Slowly, almost without noticing, Sherlock sank into a chair, still reading. Thirty minutes later he pushed the laptop away, grabbed his phone and unfolded the handwritten note. Snapping two quick pictures of the contents then crumpling the paper, he reached into his coat pocket for a cigarette lighter and crossed to the fireplace where he burned the note and carefully scattered the ashes amongst those already there. Sherlock then moved over to the sofa where he sat, still in his street clothes, and leaned his chin on his hands.
The shadows lengthened, the cars on Baker Street turned on their headlights, the streetlights came on, the pubs and restaurants filled and emptied, the traffic thinned down and the streets quietened. Sherlock sat motionless.
The sun was high in the sky when a resounding hammering against the door of 221 Baker Street brought Mrs Hudson hurrying to open it. A serious-sounding muttering, too indistinct to make out, floated up the stairs, rapidly followed by several pairs of booted feet. The hammering resumed on the door of 221B.
“Come,” Sherlock said absently, unfolding his hands and standing up. He was freshly showered with no trace of baby powder on his clothes. Abruptly, four men and one woman, who by their demeanour could only be police officers, tramped into Sherlock’s living room, leaving the door open and tailed pitifully by a distraught Mrs Hudson. Sherlock gave them the once-over and turned away, curling his lip.
“Mrs Hudson,” Sherlock announced, not at all fazed by her handwringing. He raised a polythene bag sporting a Marks & Spencer’s legend. “I would be very grateful indeed if you could get these dry-cleaned; talcum powder is the very devil to get out. I doubt they’ll ever be the same again.”
Sherlock made as if to pass the bag to Mrs Hudson but found his gesture blocked.
“I think we’ll just take a look in that bag first, sir.” The man who spoke was clearly, by his demeanour, the head honcho. He glanced inside the bag then passed it to one of his officers.
Sherlock glared. “And you would be?” he demanded. The officer looked vaguely familiar and Sherlock recalled him having been on duty to mop up the debacle over the Chinese circus.
“I’m Detective Inspector Kirtley,” he said, “Sherlock Holmes, you are being placed under arrest on suspicion of possessing and supplying a controlled substance in contravention of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. You do not have to say anything, but it may harm your defence if you do not mention when questioned something which you later rely on in court. Anything you do say may be given in evidence.”
Kirtley removed a document from his inner pocket.
“This is a warrant to search these premises,” he said, signalling his colleagues to begin their work. He pointed to Sherlock’s laptop and gestured to one of them.
“Take the computer,” he said, “there should be another one here somewhere – try the bedroom.”
“Clothes in this are covered in white powder, sir.” Pushing his nose into the M&S bag, the officer’s face assumed a puzzled expression. “Smells like – Johnsons, sir.”
Kirtley gestured impatiently and the officer closed the bag, putting it aside for further investigation.
“Make sure you get them cleaned before you return them,” Sherlock told him mildly enough. He stood up and leaned down obligingly to allow a diminutive, blonde female officer with a face like a bulldog chewing a wasp to cuff his hands. He accompanied them from Baker Street without complaint through the small crowd that had gathered in the street in response to the squad cars and flashing lights.
Several hours later found Sherlock in a police holding cell sitting on the floor, his back to the door with his eyes closed. He was minus his jacket and was still wearing his own shirt and trousers only because the Yard had run out of spare clothing. A drunk was singing wildly out of tune in the cell next to him and further along an elderly woman was having a detailed conversation with the sole of her shoe.
Sherlock’s eyes flickered open at the sound of footsteps. A uniformed officer approached his cell and he heard the characteristic rattle of the door being unlocked. Levering himself to his feet he responded to the brusque movement of the officer’s head and left the cell, his bare feet making no sound on the tiled floor.
He was shown into an interview room bereft of all niceties except for a table and four chairs. Sherlock looked up at the one-way mirror which ran along one side of the room and gave it an ironic salute. On the table were his belt, shoes and socks, his jacket and his various other possessions including his phone. He was just buckling on his wristwatch for the fourth time in thirty-six hours when the door opened again and DI Kirtley entered together with a uniformed PC.
“Sit down, Mr Holmes,” the DI said wearily. Sherlock obeyed and Kirtley took the seat opposite.
Sherlock opened the conversation. “I assume you have decided to return my property because you found nothing incriminating at Baker Street, am I correct?” he said mildly.
The DI fixed him with a stern stare. “You are correct,” Kirtley admitted grudgingly, “although we certainly found some interesting hiding places. The hollowed-out pile of newspapers, for example – an inspired idea. However, the loose floorboard under your bed was rather Enid Blyton.”
Sherlock made no reply. In actual fact, the loose floorboard was under John’s bed.
“The rose of the light fitment was also very neat,” the DI continued.
Sherlock raised his eyebrows. “My goodness,” he said politely, “you were thorough, weren’t you? And imaginative too.”
Kirtley skewered him with a look of dislike. Sherlock merely maintained his expression of polite disinterest; they clearly hadn’t found the hollowed out 1993 Edition of Debrett.
“You can pick up the two laptops from the desk sergeant,” Kirtley continued sourly.
“Don’t tell me,” Sherlock held up a hand, “let me guess: you found nothing on them either?”
“Once again you’re perfectly correct, Mr Holmes,” Kirtley said, “Nothing as in nothing at all – our experts said that both hard drives had been completely reformatted. Not only that, the data sector had also been wiped on both machines, and that takes specialist software.”
Sherlock looked away but was unable to hide a smirk.
The DI leaned over the table. “We didn’t find any backup devices either,” he continued. “You wouldn’t like to comment on that, would you?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Sherlock pretended to consider. “Perhaps John and I use Cloud – that might be the answer.”
“Or maybe we just forgot?” Sherlock continued. He smiled. “Yes, that’s probably more like the truth.”
DI Kirtley stood. “Right, that’s it,” he said, “I’ve had enough. You’re free to go – get out of here before I arrest you for wasting police time.”
Sherlock went. He departed the Yard as quickly as possible without waiting to find out why Lestrade had not been there to question him, why he and his flat had been targeted or how they knew he was at home. He left by a side entrance normally only used by the support staff and strictly off-limits to members of the public. However, before leaving he ducked into an empty staff toilet and made some quick adjustments to his appearance which included turning his jacket inside out and rolling up the sleeves. He produced a flat cap from one of his pockets into which he tucked his curls then donned his ubiquitous pair of black-rimmed glasses. On leaving the building, he activated a useful little program on his smartphone which tapped into police radio. Plugging in his headphones, he made for the Underground, not at all surprised to hear an APB taken out on him within twenty minutes of his departure.
The small crowd in Baker Street that morning had expanded by a factor of ten. Number 221 had been cordoned off by the police, yellow tape and all. Joining them from the small mews at the back of the property, Sherlock cautiously edged his way to the front where Mrs Hudson was arguing with a policeman, tears of frustration trickling down her cheeks.
“If you’d just let me fetch my jewel case,” she pleaded with the uniformed PC.
“I’m sorry, madam,” he said, “I can’t let you in there. The place has been declared off limits – something to do with hazardous waste.”
“Hazardous waste?” Mrs Hudson repeated indignantly. “I’ve never heard so much rubbish in my life!”
The PC had had enough. “Move along now, please,” he said, ushering the crowd back from the tape. Mrs Hudson backed off, stumbling over Sherlock’s feet. He gripped her shoulders to steady her.
“Don’t look round,” he rumbled in her ear. She stiffened but obeyed.
“What have you done?” she hissed quietly below the noise of the crowd.
“I don’t know yet,” he replied, “but I think I’m beginning to find out. Put this in your handbag.”
He passed her a long, flat case covered with faded red velvet. Without looking at it, she gasped with recognition.
“My jewelcase – oh, thank you, love!” Mrs Hudson tucked the item away quickly.
“Don’t lose it,” Sherlock whispered, “I went to some considerable trouble to get it for you – I’d hate to think that I had wasted my time.”
“You broke in? Oh, Sherlock!” Mrs Hudson nearly made the mistake of turning round but checked herself at the last minute.
“Seeing as I live there,” Sherlock said in an amused tone, “I don’t think that breaking and entering quite covers it, do you? Anyway, must dash; I’m being targeted by the Met for some reason and I’d like to stay at large for long enough to suss it out, as John would say.”
Sherlock gave her cheek a quick peck then slipped away through the crowd to make his way as unobtrusively as possible to Baker Street Underground station.
Alighting at Leicester Square, Sherlock set off at first towards the Northern Line but doubled back on himself, aiming towards the surface until, after waiting for the revolving CCTV camera to move away, he ducked through a conveniently unlocked door into a link between two corridors. It was dark and fairly dusty in this area and it was clearly not in general use but Sherlock walked confidently towards the only door, pulling out a very strange set of keys from the depths of one of his pockets.
The keys were lock picks of course but Sherlock did not employ them, choosing instead to activate something that looked like a tiny piezoelectric torch. There was a metallic clunk as the door unlocked itself and Sherlock wrenched at it until, with a shriek of rusty hinges, it slowly gave ground. Behind it appeared to be nothing more than a broom cupboard, but Sherlock rummaged for a torch (a real one this time) and darted inside, pulling the door to behind him.
A very short time later the door opened again but the person who exited was someone entirely different. Gone was the close-fitting suit, the fitted shirt, the exquisite shoes and in their place were creased grey trousers and a stretched, baggy brown cardigan under a worn tweed jacket. Dragging a down-at-heel carpet bag, the man waited for the CCTV camera in the corridor to move before scuttling inelegantly away, shoulders hunched, lined face unhappily set under a battered Trilby hat. Tailoring his body language to say “ignore me”, Sherlock made for the surface by the quickest possible route and set off on foot for Gerrard Street.
The shop was dinghy with peeling paintwork and windows that had evidently not seen a chamois leather since the Clean Air Act of 1956. Inside, the shop was dark and dusty with an old-fashioned counter. Sherlock entered by the door, causing the bell above it to ring. Presently, a very elderly Chinese man shuffled into the shop, took one look at Sherlock through rheumy eyes and beckoned him behind the counter. As Sherlock obeyed, the man turned the dogeared sign on the door to “CLOSED” and followed him.
The room at the back of the shop was just as old-fashioned but possibly a little cleaner. Sherlock sat at a small kitchen table while the Chinese man puttered about with a kettle and some tea. When he had provided for both of them to his satisfaction, he sat down and looked Sherlock in the face.
“Take off that stupid hat,” he said in perfect, idiomatic public school English. “It’s even worse than the one they’re calling the Sherlock.”
Sherlock obeyed looking slightly sheepish. “It was all I could find at the time,” he replied acidly.
The Chinese man chuckled and drank some of his tea. “You have caused quite a stir,” he remarked. “The word on the street is that you’re wanted by almost everyone for almost everything. I haven’t seen anything like this since the Van Effen Diamond Heist in 1987.”
“Yes Mr Chan; your brother was involved in that, wasn’t he?” Sherlock replied. The old man placed an index finger over his lips but his eyes were twinkling.
Sherlock reached into his pocket and brought out his phone. He quickly took the back off and removed the battery, using his thumb and index finger to pull the micro SD card from its slot. He placed the tiny chip on the table in front of Chan.
“This reached me from my brother,” Sherlock said without preamble, “or at least from my brother’s department which, at the moment, amounts to the same thing. I have spent the past several hours in a holding cell at Scotland Yard while my flat was being searched for illegal substances.”
“Did they find anything?” Chan asked with interest.
Sherlock shook his head. “Not a chance,” he replied. He nodded towards the tiny card. “I think that’s what they were really looking for. Fortunately, Mrs Hudson’s jewel case was as safe a place as any to park it overnight.”
Chan turned very bright, sharp eyes on Sherlock. “You and Mycroft are still at daggers drawn?” he said. Sherlock shrugged but did not reply.
“Ah,” Chan sighed, “sibling quarrels! There’s nothing like a dispute over inheritance to turn a family feud into a war, believe me I’ve been there.”
Sherlock huffed slightly and looked pointedly at the micro SD. “I’ve taken a look at the contents,” he said, “and what I can decipher easily gives me much cause for concern, but there are several files that are seriously encrypted. In fact, there are so many layers of security that I can’t even tell what they are, let alone read them.”
Chan reached for an eyeglass and picked up the tiny chip, turning it over in his hands.
“I need this information to try to get a handle on what’s going on,” Sherlock told him, “and you’re the best – at least, you’re the best I know which pretty much amounts to the same thing.”
“You can do this yourself, Sherlock,” Chan said, still examining the card. “However much security there is on it, you can crack it; it’s the kind of thing you excel at.” He looked up at Sherlock through the eye glass. “So why bring it to me?”
Sherlock grimaced. “Time is currently something of an issue, Mr Chan,” he replied.
“I see,” Chan said nodding, “you’re on the run, I take it. Is it something you know or someone you’ve offended?”
“I don’t know,” Sherlock replied thoughtfully, “I think someone is trying to run me into the ground, Mr Chan. I think they want to keep me so focussed on sheer survival that I won’t have time to think, to analyse. They’ve taken away my tools – my laptop, my police connections, Molly at Barts, my contacts, my partner…”
“Your partner is involved in this?” Chan interrupted.
Sherlock sighed. “He has disappeared,” he replied, “and I’m very suspicious.”
“You think he is somehow implicated?”
Sherlock shook his head. “There aren’t many things in this world that I trust, Mr Chan,” he said, “but John Watson’s loyalty has to be one of them.”
Chan nodded slowly. “He has been abducted then?”
“I’m certain of it. Now all I have to do is find him.”
Sherlock threw off the baggy cardigan and rummaged in his carpet bag. He took out his suit jacket, magically uncreased, and put it on, unfastening an extra shirt button. He thrust the cardigan in his bag, stood and picked up his hat, adjusting it back on his head. Instantly, he became the non-descript, harmless everyman except now, oddly, he seemed to resemble a shop worker on his lunch break.
“Good day, Mr Chan,” Sherlock said preparing to leave.
Chan saluted him gently. “Good luck, Mr Holmes,” he replied.
The Kingsland Basin is a small canal basin off the Regent's Canal in the London Borough of Hackney. It is the only canal basin in London not in private ownership and is run by a local charity for the use and benefit of the community. So much is fact; everything else herein is fiction including the OCs, except for the floating allotment which is also real. The Canals in Hackney Users' Group (CHUG) website can be found at chug.org.uk/ It's worth a look for an insight into a fascinatingly alternative way of life in the middle of London. However, the threat to the the lifestyle of the canal users posed by the development of the adjoining land into luxury apartments is sadly all too real.
Outside, Sherlock walked briskly along Gerrard Street and into Newport Place, striding along until he could disappear down the steps into Leicester Square Underground Station. He made off in the general direction of the Northern Line but seemed not entirely sure of his exact destination and ended up doubling back on himself. Finally, he passed a dishevelled-looking busker tiredly crooning a Beatles song against a listless guitar accompaniment. Unsurprisingly, the hat on the floor in front of him contained only a few pence in change.
Sherlock passed by the man and discreetly slid a twenty and a folded piece of paper into his pocket. “Get that to Shiney,” he said quietly without making eye-contact, “He’ll know what to do.” He threw some change into the hat; the busker nodded his thanks.
“Glad you got here,” he said over his strumming. “I’ve played everything I know twice.”
Sherlock snorted, took off at speed onto the next platform and boarded the waiting Southbound train.
It took a while for anyone to respond to Sherlock’s knocking and he was reduced to hammering with his fists and shouting, not that anyone in this particular neck of the woods would find his behaviour unusual or in any way problematic.
The mews was unkempt and neglected, strewn with litter and redolent with the fragrance of overflowing refuse bins. The entrance that Sherlock was currently abusing was officially a fire door, although it was scratched, rusty and dented in places and showed signs of frequent use.
“Alright, alright – hold your horses! I’m not in the Olympics, you know!”
The door swung open a crack to reveal a sharp, shrewish face framed by platinum blond hair with a good inch of dark regrowth. The blue eyes widened in recognition and the door quickly jerked closed. Sherlock shoved his foot between the door and the jamb. “Cheryl!” he exclaimed, smiling nastily, “How delightful to make your acquaintance again after all this time. What, not pleased to see me?” His foot held the door solidly ajar.
Cheryl glared at him. “Get out of here – you’re bad news!” she hissed, heaving uselessly on the handle.
Sherlock shook his head admonishingly. “Really,” he drawled, “that’s no way to greet an old friend.” His hand clamped down on her wrist forcefully enough to make her wince.
“And I would be obliged if you would cease your efforts to eject me,” he continued in a lower, more menacing tone, “These shoes are one of a kind, and I’m rather fond of them.”
Sherlock leaned against the door and Cheryl reluctantly gave ground. Full length, she was a blowsy-looking girl, more-or-less dressed in a short denim skirt and a filmy shirt which could have been described as revealing on a less ample figure.
“Thank you,” Sherlock said to her, smile barely reaching his eyes. “Would you be so good as to tell Graham I want to see him – now.”
Cheryl narrowed her eyes. “He told me I wasn’t to disturb him,” she said sullenly.
Sherlock did not pause. “Very well,” he said pushing past her and taking the stairs two at a time, “I’ll disturb him then.”
Cheryl’s outraged shriek followed Sherlock across a carpeted landing towards a white painted office door. He grasped the handle but the door was apparently locked.
“I told you!” Cheryl spat, running up behind him. She grabbed his sleeve. Sherlock froze and glared at her until she withdrew her hand, lowered her eyes and fidgeted under his gaze. Face expressionless, Sherlock kicked back hard with his right foot; the door exploded into the room, swinging on its hinges, the lock in splinters.
Sherlock nodded at the hapless Cheryl, putting a finger under her chin to close her mouth, and turned to enter.
The room was clearly an office – the large desk, bank of telephones and array of filing cabinets attested to that – but it was also a living room of sorts in that it boasted a couple of leather armchairs and a huge, squashy leather sofa in front of a nice cast-iron fireplace with a bright coal fire burning in the grate. Two figures were currently putting the sofa to the kind of use that inspires gratitude in near neighbours for the invention of curtains.
“Ah, Graham!” Sherlock said heartily, striding over to the sofa, sitting down in an armchair and crossing his legs, “Good to see you keeping busy. How’s business?”
There followed the kind of disbelieving silence that usually only accompanies the reading of any British Political Party Manifesto. One of the figures leaped suddenly bolt upright in apparent shock, scrabbled among the pile of discarded clothing draped around the sofa and, modesty more-or-less adequately preserved, made a bolt for an adjoining room. The slam of the door had a ring of finality to it.
Sherlock watched the proceedings with an air of benevolent patience then turned back to the sofa.
“Graham,” he said again, nodding in greeting.
“I’m sorry, sir,” the miserable Cheryl whined, wringing her hands in horror on the threshold, “I told him you wasn’t to be disturbed but he took no notice.”
“I can see that,” Graham replied testily. He sighed and gestured dismissively over his shoulder without looking at her.
“Piss off, Cheryl,” he said, “and try not to let the rest of the bleedin’ world up here, will you?”
Cheryl tried in vain to close the door as she left but Sherlock had clearly demolished it beyond even a temporary repair.
Graham sat back on the sofa and reached for a packet of cigarettes and a lighter that lay on a small occasional table. He was a grey-haired, middle-aged man with a noticeable paunch and a scar down one shoulder, both of which were clearly visible as his sole attire appeared to be a pair of creased suit trousers. Sherlock amused himself poking through the articles of clothing still on the office floor with the toe of one shoe and a quizzically raised eyebrow.
“So,” Sherlock said lightly, “how’s the market for laptops, tablets and smartphones noticeably lacking in provenance these days?”
Graham struck his lighter and took a heavy drag on a cigarette before settling back into the sofa with a sigh.
“What you doing here, Sherlock?” he demanded, mildly enough for a man who had just been interrupted in flagrante.
“I need your assistance, Graham,” Sherlock replied and deliberately leaned forward to inhale the second-hand smoke. Graham noticed and gave a short, dry laugh.
“Thought you’d given up,” he retorted dryly, removing the packet from Sherlock’s orbit.
Sherlock gave him a sour look. “I have,” he replied testily. “You ought to consider a similar exercise.”
Graham laughed throatily, the sound morphing into a deep cough. “Too late,” he said carelessly. “’Sides, you got to die of something, don’t you?”
Sherlock merely twitched an eyebrow without bothering to respond. Graham drew on his cigarette again then gestured with it.
“Don’t bother making like this is a social call,” he rasped. “Sooner you get to the point, sooner you sling your hook. What do you want?”
Sherlock sat forward in his chair. “I need a diversion, Graham,” he continued, “a distraction. I’ll give you the details in a moment, but I have a pressing need to be in several different places at once tonight.”
Graham shook his head, letting the smoke dribble out of his nose. “Not this time,” he said, “Too many favours to call in; I can’t afford it.” He frowned as Sherlock held up a pair of lace panties between the finger and thumb of his right hand.
“How’s Frannie keeping these days?” Sherlock asked mildly. “Still holding the financial reins, is she?” He shook his head reproachfully. “You really should have read that pre-nuptial thoroughly – or at least got your lawyers onto it.” He waved the scrap of lace in the other man’s face. “As I understand it, Frannie’s a stickler for the letter of the law, isn’t she, Graham? I doubt she’d look too kindly on this sort of thing.”
“Frannie and I have – an understanding,” Graham grated out between his teeth.
“Really?” Sherlock fished a white stiletto-heeled shoe in a size eleven out from under his chair and held it out. “So she’s happy that you do boys who are girls, is she? Because in case you don’t already know, that one in the bathroom there is a professional – aren’t you, Kevin?”
Sherlock raised his voice for the last three words and after a moment or two the lock clicked and the door opened. The young man who exited was slender and lean with a shock of dyed blond hair and a face smudged with make-up. He had managed to wriggle into a pair of skin-tight jeans which left nothing to the imagination, but his feet and chest were bare. Graham glanced at Kevin wearily and gestured with his head.
“Find your stuff,” he said, “and piss off. You breathe a word of this and you’re dead, you hear?”
Kevin made no reply, merely fished various items of clothing from the floor, including the panties and the stiletto shoe, and scuttled out through the broken front door.
Sherlock smiled pleasantly. “Now,” he said, “as I was saying about the distraction.”
Graham nodded. “Yeah,” he replied, “I heard the police had an APB out on you. What is it this time, Sherlock? Coke again?”
Sherlock shook his head. “Nothing like that,” he replied and sighed irritably, “Always the most pedestrian assumptions. No, Graham, I’m not using again, nor am I branching out into dealing, nor have I been done for possession. At least, not in the way you mean."
Sherlock paused and sighed heavily. "I have to get the Met off my tail," he admitted. "Baker Street's completely out of bounds now and all my usual boltholes are too well-known. I've been on the move since this morning trying to shake them; they haven't found me yet but it's only a matter of time and I'm running out of steam, damn it!"
Graham pursed his lips and frowned. "Sounds like you're in big trouble this time, Sherlock," he said gravely.
Sherlock rolled his eyes. "You have no idea," he replied. "Look, Graham, I have one more place of safety open to me - just one. And I can't afford to be tailed, recognised, caught on CCTV - nothing, or I'm finished, trust me."
“I’ve never been able to trust you as far as I could kick you, and my drop-kick was always pathetic,” Graham replied acidly. He sighed. “Alright, Sherlock; gimme the gen; I’ll run with it as far as I can.”
“I knew I could rely on you, Graham,” Sherlock said with a smile. He produced his phone and started to tap furiously.
Graham did not return the smile. “And Kevin?” he asked.
Sherlock gave him an old fashioned look and pressed Send. “Kevin who?” he asked politely, rising to his feet. “Details are in the text. Try to keep it on the right side of the law, won’t you?”
Graham gave a throaty chuckle. "You got some bleedin' nerve, I'll give you that."
Next to the door was an old-fashioned hat stand housing a long, good quality trench-coat in a dull taupe. Sherlock hooked it deftly from its peg without breaking stride and threw it round his shoulders; from the sounds outside, it had begun to rain heavily.
Several hours later, dusk was beginning to sink into full dark and the rain had settled into a drizzle. The crowds of rush hour commuters pouring out of Hackney’s Haggerston Station had thinned down to a steady stream, most out now on their evening business. A tall man in paint-stained overalls and a working-man’s cap slouched purposefully along Kingsland Road, a battered carpet bag slung across his body by a broad leather strap. After a few minutes, the man moved into the shadows, did something dextrous with the lock on an iron gate and slipped into a tiny mews between two offices. It was no more than a couple of yards wide and clearly existed to house the bins, but on gaining the rear of the area, Sherlock was brought up short.
It had been some time since he had last visited this area of London. Nevertheless, he usually kept abreast of developments, fitting them into his mental map as they occurred. This, however, had slipped past the radar: a ten-foot high chain-link fence with no gate. Clearly, the commercial interests in the area had grown fed up with public curiosity and had finally taken action to prevent trespass. Sherlock laid hands on the wire and peered through like a child in a school playground. He could smell the water, hear the sounds of the boats and the occasional lilt of laughter. He sighed, removed his shoes and hung them round his neck by their laces.
A few minutes later, Sherlock landed lightly barefoot on the ground the other side of the fence. He had been relieved to find nothing sharp or pointed on the top of the fence. This would have been illegal, of course, but in his experience that was rarely a disincentive.
Sherlock replaced his socks and shoes and stood for a moment to get his bearings. The narrow-boats were moored tidily together mostly along one side of the marina, for the Kingsland Basin was not large. The much disputed development of the abandoned factory and workshops on either side of the water seemed to be quiescent for now, he noted. Sherlock was under no illusion that this situation would continue indefinitely, and once the work resumed it would likely threaten the security and lifestyle of the boat owners. But for now, the basin was a quiet and peaceful haven amidst the havoc of the world’s most diverse city. Sherlock slipped into the shadows and made his way carefully down to the water.
The first boat Sherlock came to was a sixty footer and painted red and blue. It had a traditional look to it and had clearly seen hard use throughout its life, but it was the customary six feet wide and so was a modern build. It was well cared for and sported home comforts such as tubs and window boxes full of salad vegetables, herbs and flowers, declaring it to be a permanent dwelling rather than a holiday home or a method of transport.
Sherlock sprang onto the deck and rapped smartly on the window. Presently, the hatch swung slowly open and a head poked out.
“Kristie,” Sherlock said quietly. There was a short pause then the head disappeared leaving behind a beckoning hand. Sherlock needed no second bidding.
She closed the hatch behind him and darted around the cabin pulling the blinds. Then she switched on a wall lamp to add extra light to the room and studied him, shaking her head and pressing her lips together.
“You look bloody ridiculous,” she said in a low, gravelly voice that spoke both of an outdoor life and too many cigarettes. “No one would believe you had ever touched a paintbrush in your life.”
Kristie was in her early forties, brunette with streaks of grey and a mobile, shrewd face.
Sherlock studied her expression and nodded faintly. “You’ve heard,” he said. It was not a question.
“Yes,” Kristie replied in a droll tone. “You don’t do anything by halves, do you?”
Sherlock shrugged and stepped fully into the cabin. The boat was as well-worn inside as out but all the same, it was cosy and welcoming. Kristie filled the kettle from her water supply and set it to boil while she dug out the teabags.
“How long will you be staying?” she asked over her shoulder.
Sherlock considered. “I need to keep my head below the parapet for a while,” he replied, “but probably no more than a few days. I’m afraid you might receive a certain amount of, shall we say, interest after I leave.”
Kristie gave him a look then continued to make the tea. “Why am I not surprised?” she replied indifferently. “Trouble follows you around like a magnet.”
Sherlock gave a dry chuckle. “This time it’s personal,” he told her. “At least, I think it is.”
Kristie passed him a steaming mug with an amused smirk. “The great Sherlock Holmes can’t be sure?” she commented. “I better mark the calendar.” She sipped her drink and eyed him thoughtfully. Sherlock took a pull of his own tea and kept his silence.
“She’s berthed in number 2,” Kristie told him after a few moments. “Dawn overhauled the engine last month and I ran it for a few hours today to charge up the battery. The solar panels will keep it topped up if the weather’s fine, but you’ll need to use the shore supply if you’re going to be berthed more than a couple of days. Will you be taking her out?”
Sherlock shook his head. “I’m not planning to,” he said. “It might come to that but not until I understand things a little better.”
Kristie gave him a level look. “You really are in deep this time, aren’t you?” she said softly.
Sherlock breathed out softly. “You have no idea,” he replied.
They exchanged a long look then Kristie nodded faintly. “I’ll put it about that I’m looking to give Madrigal a makeover,” she said. “That’ll give me a reason to be in and out and for the power to be connected. Try to keep your head down, won’t you? This place might seem like a little oasis but those chain-link fences don’t do much to keep the ungodly out, I can tell you.”
Sherlock shook his head. “It’s not so much the ungodly that concern me,” he replied. “How effective is the CCTV around the Basin?”
Kristie shrugged. “It’s god enough when it’s working,” she replied, “but it’s really not a great place for electronics round here. Despite the fact that this is a freshwater environment, the things keep corroding and taking in rainwater. The developers installed them to protect their contractors’ machinery but they couldn’t seem to find a design that worked properly for long. Now, of course, there’s nothing to protect for the time being, so they’ve given up.” Her eyes were wide and guileless.
Sherlock smiled and finished his tea. “Kristie, you are a gem among women,” he told her graciously. “What would I do without you?” He took her hand and grazed her knuckles with his lips, bright eyes mocking her all the time.
“Don’t push it, sunshine,” Kristie replied taking back her hand composedly, although a faint flush appeared on her pale cheeks, “Now get out of here before I change my mind.”
Sherlock grinned and opened the stern doors. Once there, he turned back. “Oh, and it’s possible I’ll be having a visitor at some stage over the next few days,” he told her. “At least, I hope so.”
Kristie raised her eyebrows and returned his grin. “Looking forward to it,” she replied.
Outside, Sherlock fished out his cap once again, more to annoy Kristie than for any real purpose, and donned it, sinking into his former slouching body language. He walked further along the waterside and located berth 2, pulling a ring of keys and a pencil torch from an inner pocket as he did so. He shone the torch over the vessel swaying gently in the water before him and the beam revealed the name “Madrigal” picked out in plain white letters against a dark painted hull. He leaped lightly onto the stern deck and pushed open the cockpit doors, aiming for the cabin beyond.
The padlock was business-like and well-oiled and Sherlock’s key opened it noiselessly. The hinges on the stern hatch moaned softly as he entered, and the steps creaked under his feet. He closed the hatch behind him and leaned against the bulkhead in the dark with a sigh, allowing his head to droop. He was currently twenty-four hours without sleep and twelve without food.
A voice spoke suddenly out of the darkness making Sherlock spin round quickly enough to give him whiplash.
“You’re late,” it said.
The Kingsland Basin is a small canal basin off the Regent's Canal in the London Borough of Hackney. It is the only canal basin in London not in private ownership and is run by a local charity for the use and benefit of the community. So much is fact; everything else herein is fiction including the OCs, except for the floating allotment which is also real. The Canals in Hackney Users' Group (CHUG) website can be found at chug.org.uk/ It's worth a look for an insight into a fascinatingly alternative way of life in the middle of London. However, the threat to the the lifestyle of the canal users posed by the development of the adjoining land into luxury apartments is sadly all too real.
“I expected you half an hour ago.”
Sherlock’s first instinct was to grope blindly for a weapon; he found the reaction amusing, as if he could do anything to prevail against an unseen, unknown enemy who had the advantage of surprise. Sherlock flinched, suddenly dazzled as a powerful torch beam shone in his eyes. His searching fingers closed around a mace spray concealed in his pocket for just such emergencies and he started to raise his hands in the universal gesture of surrender, carefully concealing the small container. He could make out a backlit shadow, no more.
“Please, don’t,” the voice spoke again. “I’m unarmed.”
The shadow reached for a nearby lamp and switched it on, dipping the torch beam. Sherlock slowly lowered his hands and frowned as his eyes adjusted.
“Sit down,” the man said quietly, “you look as though you would benefit from it.”
Sherlock thought that was understating the case. He was known for his erratic eating and sleeping habits, but the endless hours of adrenaline-fuelled activity were beginning to take their toll. He sank gratefully into a well-worn upholstered chair, careless for once of his image.
As Sherlock took a moment to regain his breath, he watched the stranger brush gingerly at the seat of a bench very good suit, smooth line (no concealed weapon), not bespoke but still expensive (salary around 90 to 100k), Eton school tie (oh, please!) then shrugged and sat down, crossing his legs slight scuffing/scratching on heel of right shoe (Cheney Oxford – cat owner). He settled his hands in his lap no ring mark, hair on fourth finger of left hand not worn away (not married) and adjusted the cuff of his right sleeve machine pressed, not ironed by hand, uses a laundry service (lives alone). While waiting patiently for Sherlock to make his move, the man slid a Blackberry from an inner pocket latest model, basic design (work issue not personal) and seemed to occupy himself.
Sherlock narrowed his eyes and took in a few more details; writing callous on index finger (left handed, fluent in Mandarin); faint timbre to accent (has progressed above origins); hairstyle, brand of product, colour of eyelashes and particular type of face cream…
“Have you come to any firm conclusions?” The stranger spoke without raising his eyes, interrupting Sherlock’s train of thought. He looked up and raised his eyebrows interrogatively, his lips curving in a slight smile.
Sherlock subtly but deliberately altered his body language, relaxing into an elegant sprawl, and raked his eyes slowly over the stranger’s body. The other man shook his head.
“I don’t think so,” the man said obliquely, “I’ve seen your file – it makes interesting reading. You’re certainly no lightweight, Mr Sherlock Holmes, and I’m not susceptible so please, cease your playacting.”
Sherlock resisted the temptation to pout. He sat upright, leaned his elbows on his knees and frowned, deep in thought; the stranger glanced back at his Blackberry.
“Interesting,” he said conversationally, “as we speak, Sherlock Holmes is currently taking a train from Knightsbridge tube station, is involved in a fistfight in a nightclub in Piccadilly, is enjoying a pint of Newcastle Brown in a pub in Camden Town and is also sitting in the front seat of the stalls at the National where Branagh is playing King Lear. And that’s only the London sightings.”
Sherlock winced. “All except for the beer,” he muttered, “Nuclear Brown? I’d sooner drink strychnine.”
“Nevertheless, the police are baffled,” the man remarked.
Sherlock rolled his eyes. “And this is news?” he asked rhetorically.
The man snapped his phone shut and pocketed it. “Introductions are tedious, I realise,” he began.
“Then let me help you,” Sherlock interrupted smoothly. “You are my brother’s Number Two – in all senses of the phrase.”
The man’s eyes narrowed but he held his peace.
“Forgive me for not recognising you immediately,” Sherlock said without a trace of contrition, “but I am sadly not at my best when accosted on a darkened narrow boat, the existence of which should be a closely guarded secret.
“You and I were never meant to meet,” Sherlock continued, “but circumstances have forced your hand. You are here because my brother is currently incommunicado and you are missing one of the vital safety codes set up between you to verify the authenticity of his instructions. Presently, you can’t be sure of anything at all, even whether or not he remains alive. How am I doing so far?”
The man's face could have been graven from stone; he gestured for Sherlock to continue.
“You are still receiving communications purportedly from my brother,” Sherlock said calmly, “and also carrying out his instructions with every appearance of confidence in his identity, but your gut instinct tells you that he is not issuing them. You have very little to go on and you are paralysed from pursuing any alternative course of action by your knowledge that any deviation from the accustomed norm will likely result in your being swiftly taken out of the game, possibly permanently. You do not deceive yourself as to the potential seriousness of the situation – you are only too aware that this could bring down not only the British government but also the Pentagon and most of Europe too. Oh, and incidentally your on-off male partner is completely innocent, so you can stop worrying if your extreme care with pronouns when referring to your current recreational liaison has any bearing on the present crisis: you can rest assured my brother will have established with certainty that it does not.”
The stranger blinked but otherwise gave no visible reaction. “Mr Holmes wasn’t exaggerating when he talked about you,” he remarked quietly.
Sherlock smirked. “People rarely do,” he replied. “What more can you tell me?”
“There has been a coup,” the man said without preamble. “A small group of extremely influential Whitehall civil servants, who have been waiting some years for just such an opportunity, has joined forces with a number of key MPs, including at least one member of the cabinet, who are extremely dissatisfied with the current administration. Waiting for the Prime Minister to act is like waiting for Armageddon so one of them has been reported as saying in an unguarded moment. I fear, however, that this coup involves more than mere impatience with the current political situation and could result in a far graver outcome than these misguided MPs think.”
Sherlock paused to consider. “Who and what is at the heart of it?” he asked.
The man shook his head. “I’m afraid I’m not high enough up the food chain to know,” he replied. “My security clearance is second only to your brother’s. However…” He tailed off with a helpless shrug.
Sherlock nodded. “You may find yourself very grateful for that,” he replied, “It may have meant the difference between your presence here today and your rapid interment in concrete beneath one of Britain’s numerous motorways.”
“Indeed,” the stranger replied gravely.
Sherlock rubbed his index finger over his lower lip and watched the other man's eyes slide away. “Names,” he demanded flatly.
The other man shook his head. “Those are few and far between,” he replied, “and such as I have were very hard to come by. I will give you what little information I have; I hope you will be able to make more use of it than I.”
“Undoubtedly I shall,” Sherlock responded loftily, “but even I cannot make gold from base metal. Not yet at any rate.”
The other man smiled without humour but refrained from comment.
Sherlock levered himself wearily to his feet. “Very well,” he said. “I think it better if you leave now. You’ve said what you came to say – not that I hadn’t already worked most of it out, but it’s nice to have confirmation. Anything else you learn, I assume you’ll find some ingenious means to pass on to me. There’s nothing more you can do here and, pedestrian though they certainly are at Scotland Yard, your continued presence puts me at increased risk of discovery by the police, so please don’t hang about once you leave.”
The stranger bowed his head in acknowledgement and rose to his feet. He reached in his pocket and withdrew a keyring with a fob in the shape of a small Scandinavian troll sporting a shock of long, florescent orange hair.
He met Sherlock’s mildly incredulous look with a slightly shamefaced smile. “It’s actually a flash drive,” he admitted, tossing the small object at Sherlock gently.
“I know what it is,” Sherlock replied, fielding the small object deftly and pocketing it.
“My niece gave me one for Christmas when she was five,” the other man continued. He produced a set of keys which sported a similar object.
“This one is, of course, exactly what it appears to be,” he continued, “but my colleagues are all accustomed to its presence, therefore security didn’t turn a hair when I left the office with the purloined information in full view. The drive contains everything of relevance concerning Mr Holmes over the past several weeks plus all I have on the identities of those in Whitehall and the House who are or could be implicated. A very few documents I deemed too sensitive even for your eyes, Mr Holmes, have been omitted.”
“Of course,” murmured Sherlock.
The other man gave him a hard look and stretched out a hand to the door latch. “If there is anything further,” he replied, “I will contact you. You can trust me both to know where you are and also to be discreet.”
“I’m certain I can,” Sherlock replied blandly.
“Goodbye and good luck,” the stranger said with an odd little bow, “Mister Sherlock Holmes.”
“My thanks,” Sherlock returned the bow, “Mister Alfred Oakley.”
Oakley’s chin jerked up and his eyes flashed.
Sherlock smiled, pleased to have caught him out. “I’ve known your name for several years,” he said, unable to resist boasting.
“Indeed,” the other man replied, his tone considerably more steely, “and I trust you can be depended upon to forget it?”
“Oh, undoubtedly,” Sherlock returned, matching the steel, “once I am convinced that I need to. Goodnight, Mr Oakley.”
Oakley had opened the doors and was about to step through on to the deck when Sherlock turned suddenly. “Oh, just one more thing – how did you know about this place?” he asked casually.
Oakley inclined his head. “Mr Holmes told me about it,” he replied, “in fact, it was almost the last thing he told me before he, ah, went into seclusion.”
“I see,” Sherlock replied then made shooing motions with his hands. “Very well, now go about your business before someone notices you’re not where you should be.”
Oakley gave him a thin smile. “Don’t worry, Mr Holmes,” he replied, “Your brother is not the only one who knows how to manipulate CCTV.”
Sherlock fastened the aft doors behind Oakley, doused the lights and listened as the other man’s footsteps faded gradually into silence. For the next half hour he remained still, the only movement being the restless darting of his eyes. Eventually, Sherlock stretched his stiff muscles, rose to his feet and walked almost drunkenly for’ard into the master bedroom where he faceplanted on the clean, slightly damp bedding and was asleep almost immediately.
Sherlock slept for upwards of twelve hours. When he awoke, he found that, to his chagrin, he had failed to lock the stern doors and, to his relief, Kristie had visited earlier leaving him coffee, sugar and the makings of a meal, also a clean towel, shampoo and a shaving kit. Sherlock made use of the latter with great relief, devoured all of the former like a starving man, then went back into the bedroom, and stripped the bedcovers and mattress back until he reached the base of the bed. After a little tinkering, he managed to activate a tiny spring which caused a wooden panel, part of the base, to lift off and reveal a small storage space beneath. From this, Sherlock removed a laptop computer and a smart phone together with their respective AC chargers, each securely wrapped in waterproof plastic.
It took Sherlock some considerable time to access his email account without tripping any of the alerts the police, and possibly other less congenial persons, had put on it. He went through several proxies, hiding his tracks with care, eventually hacking his way into his own account by imitating some of the signature traces of a well-established cyber-criminal, known to but as yet untraced by Scotland Yard.
Two hours later, Sherlock sat back in his chair and pondered the fruits of his labours.
Firstly, Mr Chan had succeeded in decrypting the files Sherlock had left at his office yesterday (was it really only yesterday?) and had published them on an obscure website on Chinese History under the Members Only section. As Mr Chan was the sys admin and had merely created a new protected section just for the purpose, all he had to pass on to Sherlock was the relevant password. Mr Chan had a mind like a steel trap and thrived on mathematical anomalies, so the password was contained in a conundrum so complex it took Sherlock all of twenty minutes to unravel. That in itself made him uneasy and when he finally began to read the files, his disquiet abruptly increased fourfold.
Secondly, he took delivery of several random messages, apparently advertisements for legal advice, car insurance and one cheeky one for Viagra. Sherlock ran them through his personal decoder (his brain) and concluded that although Shiney had mobilised the homeless network with a vengeance, they had nothing conclusive as yet.
There was nothing at all from John but this neither surprised nor worried Sherlock. He spent some little time composing an innocuous email complaining about his atrocious treatment at the airport but mentioned nothing of his current whereabouts. True to form, fifteen minutes later a reply purporting to be from John appeared in his inbox.
I cant believe they gave you a cavity search! Thats absolutely outrageous – I think you can sue over that. After all they dont have any reason to believe youre carrying drugs, do they?
Sherlock smiled grimly to himself and replied:
They’re idiots, all of them. They wouldn’t recognise a controlled substance if it turned up in a litter bin. I’m guessing that you and your friend haven’t had time to watch the news?
The reply was swift and to the point; Sherlock had to congratulate them on their verisimilitude:
WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?!
Sherlock smiled grimly and signed out. He stretched out in the hard chair with his hands over his head and pondered.
Kristie knocked on the stern doors some considerable time later. Sherlock sat up in his chair, blinking against the bad light before he realised that it actually was dusk. He got up to let her in, walking like an old man on muscles seized over the hours.
Kristie had brought a man with her, blond and rangy with a lined, brown face.
“Sherlock,” he said, nodding politely, “good to see you back on the Madrigal.”
“Jonathan,” Sherlock responded with a genuine smile. “I didn’t notice Jabberwocky when I arrived?”
“That’s because I only came in this afternoon,” Jonathan responded. “I’ve been in Wales, visiting the family.”
“And my betting is you haven’t eaten properly for the entire time you’ve been away,” Kristie scolded, deftly moving Sherlock’s equipment and papers into neat piles and laying out three place settings. She nodded to the door. “Bring that dish in would you, Jonathan? And the bowl with it?”
Kristie rooted around in Sherlock’s cupboards, bringing out plates, cutlery and glasses while Jonathan returned from the deck bearing a large casserole fragrant with the aroma of fish pie.
Kristie glared at Sherlock and pointed at a chair. “Sit,” she commanded.
Sherlock shook his head. “I’ve already eaten,” he told her, making as if to go aft into the bedroom.
Kristie pushed on his shoulders, rounded on him and got so far into his face that even Sherlock with his obliviousness to personal space issues had to blink in surprise. “You may have had breakfast,” she told him, “but it’s evening now and if I’m not mistaken, you’ve eaten nothing for the previous two days.”
As Sherlock stared Kristie pointed insistently at the chair, her gaze implacable. Sherlock rolled his eyes and sat down reluctantly; Jonathan sniggered and managed to turn it into a cough after being skewered by Sherlock’s indignant glare.
The fish pie rivalled even that produced by the restaurant at the Diogenes Club, Sherlock reflected as he wolfed it down eagerly; he had forgotten how hungry a thinking marathon sometimes made him. Jonathan was making similar obeisance to his own portion and Kristie allowed herself a grin of sheer pleasure at their obvious appreciation.
Pudding was a spicy apple crumble with real custard; Jonathan smiled warmly at Kristie as he upended nearly half the jug into his dish. She gave him an old-fashioned look.
“No point in using Bird’s when there’s fresh eggs to be had from Adrian’s allotment, is there?” she said crisply but her eyes were affectionate. Sherlock glanced between the two of them but his mind was mostly still buried in his decrypting.
After Jonathan had scraped the last of the crumble from the bowl, he produced a crumpled carrier bag containing three mismatched bottles with handwritten labels and requested a corkscrew. Kristie seemed to know where most things lived on board the Madrigal and hunted down a Swiss army knife and three wine glasses from the galley.
Sherlock snapped out of his brooding at the scrape of chairs and looked up as Jonathan jerked a thumb towards the stern deck. “It’s a dry night,” he said, “I’m for a smoke with my drink.” Sherlock weighed up his options then abandoned his thinking to fall in with the majority.
Jonathan’s assessment was correct; the afternoon’s rain had dried up and the wind had died down to leave a still, fairly warm evening for the time of year. The pop of a cork and the splash of liquid into glasses mingled with the gentle gurgle of the river. The wine looked ink-black in the grey moonlight and Sherlock inhaled an unfamiliar scent as he sipped cautiously. Jonathan grinned, a flash of white teeth in the light leaking from the Madrigal’s windows.
“That one’s never seen a grape,” he said conversationally, quaffing half his glass in one go. He drew heavily on his cigarette and smiled, not without malice, at Sherlock’s attempt to inhale the residual smoke.
“Elderberry?” Sherlock turned his attention to the wine and raised his eyebrows at Jonathan’s mildly surprised affirmation. “What? When I was young, the gardener at home used to make it and trade it to the rest of the staff,” Sherlock explained. “The alcohol content had to be experienced to be believed; I remember Nanny was particularly fond of it. The year my brother Mycroft decided to exercise his lock-picking technique on the potting shed was a very interesting one for all concerned. I ended up in A&E with alcohol poisoning.”
“How old were you?” Kristie asked, wide-eyed.
Sherlock shrugged. “Probably about three,” he replied. “Mycroft was ten and miserably behind hand; I was safecracking when I was six. Locks are easy.”
A shout from the darkness of the shore interrupted the conversation. Kristie peered into the gloom then grinned and beckoned. “Alex!” she called. “Come aboard – J’s brought some of his dad’s brew.”
“Lethal stuff!” said a woman’s voice as two figures came into the light.
Kristie grinned in delight. “Thought you’d be down the Drum and Monkey this evening, you and Dawn,” she said. “Quiz night, isn’t it?”
“Saw that Madrigal was occupied,” Alex replied easily, stepping onto the stern. “That always means a get together of some kind.”
Alex was a natural blond with corn-coloured plaits, blue eyes and a pale ivory complexion. In contrast, her female companion was very dark-skinned with crimson dreadlocks and brilliant white teeth. Her worn denim overalls were stained with black grease and she grinned broadly at Sherlock.
“Engine’s running smoothly,” she remarked, accepting a full wineglass from Jonathan.
Sherlock nodded amiably. “Good to see you, Dawn,” he replied, “and thank you.”
“Have you met Alex?” Dawn slid a casual arm around the blond woman’s waist. “We’re bunking down together on the Uncle George now – Alex is a lawyer in the city.”
“A useful woman to know,” Sherlock remarked, shaking her hand.
Alex smiled. “I’ve followed your exploits for years, Mr Holmes,” she told him. “I’m surprised your partner, Doctor Watson, isn’t with you.”
It wasn’t a question, but her eyebrows were raised interrogatively.
Sherlock shook his head. “So am I,” he replied shortly. Alex took a sip from her glass and, when Sherlock said no more, turned to exchange a greeting with Jonathan.
Sherlock leaned on the railing and stared out over the water. The noise of urban life drifted across from the surrounding streets – youths shouting, the revving of motorbike engines, motor horns and HGVs roaring, the slamming of doors both to cars and buildings. The life of the great city was muted by the twin barriers of the water and the derelict areas either side of the basin. He sighed; someday someone would force through a genuine planning application and make a killing building luxury apartments around this little city oasis, and then everything that made this community special would hang in the balance. Life here was a throwback to a bygone age, Sherlock mused; it was unique and irreplaceable and once gone, it could never be restored.
Sherlock’s email pinged just as Jonathan was pouring the last of the second bottle. Abandoning his glass, Sherlock took the stern steps in one bound, grabbed his laptop and scanned the latest message rapidly. His face broke into a triumphant grin and he thumped the table. Kristie and Jonathan peered into the living compartment from the deck.
Sherlock turned his face up with a brilliant smile. “Yes!” he exclaimed, “They’ve found him – their efficiency has improved 100 per cent!”
Kristie opened her mouth but Sherlock held up a quelling hand as he studied the email once more. His smile lost its brightness and began to fade. He took a deep, quelling breath and frown lines appeared between his eyebrows.
“This,” he muttered under his breath, “is just insulting.”
It couldn’t be this easy, Sherlock thought bitterly as he approached the empty office block. It wasn’t the basement of a derelict house in a run-down area of East London. It wasn’t even a warehouse on a deserted industrial estate. No, it was a premium suite of offices, temporarily vacant due to relocation, situated in Leadenhall Street, smack bang in the centre of the City.
He shook his head in disbelief when he realised the site was on the first floor of a small terrace – not even high up in a tower block to make the access problematic – with, of all things, a mews at the rear just to over-egg the pudding. And to add insult to injury, the doorman was a former client – a former client who just happened to owe Sherlock a favour.
“This is simply demeaning,” Sherlock muttered as he sent the lift to the first floor as a decoy and took the stairs. Nothing was ever this straightforward, he told himself as he cautiously pushed open the door from the stairwell and checked the landing; empty, of course. He sighed heavily. No one could be this stupid about a kidnapping, he thought as he threw open the door to the second of the three offices, took out one man with a paralysing kick to the kneecap and floored another with a blast of foam from a handy fire extinguisher before socking him in the face with the same. The office was empty apart from a closed door at the rear, through which Sherlock marched and found himself face to face with a handcuffed but totally unharmed John Watson.
And no one leaves a kidnap victim in the care of two imbeciles who don’t have a viable weapon between them.
It was a total anti-climax; Sherlock was livid.
“You didn’t have to kneecap him,” John complained as Sherlock secured the two miserable erstwhile guards with their own belts and rifled through their pockets for keys to John’s handcuffs.
“Mmm?” Sherlock replied, not really paying attention.
“I mean,” John continued, “they aren’t exactly professionals, you know, and they treated me pretty well for a kidnapping; no threats, no violence or humiliation, adequate food and water, decent facilities – they were careful not to get blasé about it, but I’d put money on their being very small-time, if they’re even criminals at all.”
The larger of the two guards glared at John.
“That doesn’t excuse them,” Sherlock said between his teeth. He had found the key and was in the process of releasing John from his cuffs.
John rubbed at his wrists and made a wry face. “Maybe not by your lights, no,” he replied with some faint amusement.
Sherlock bit down hard but failed to suppress his anger. With a wordless exclamation, he flung the cuffs into a corner and stalked over to the door. He looked back irritably over his shoulder.
“Well, come on then, John,” he said impatiently, “or do you actually like it here?”
John frowned and gestured towards the two men. “Aren’t you going to, well, talk to them?” he asked quizzically.
“Talk to them?” Sherlock replied with withering contempt. “I might as well take a trip to the monkey house at Whipsnade. No John, I do not intend to talk to them; I intend to leave.”
“But surely we need to question them?” John argued, “I mean, to find out why I was here?”
“I know precisely why you were here,” Sherlock replied, irritatingly deadpan, “and I am quite certain that I could interrogate these two until the cows come home and be none the wiser at the end of it. Now will you please get moving? We’ve got a lot to do and no time to waste.”
Sherlock led the way down the service stairs to the back of the property and threaded his way between bins and over gates until he finally emerged close to Tower Hill Underground Station and disappeared purposefully into the depths of the District Line, dragging John by the sleeve. He was very angry.
Sherlock was silent for the entire tube journey. John fidgeted as the train rattled and clattered its way to Whitechapel where Sherlock pushed him into the Gents, locked the door and rummaged in his ubiquitous carpet bag. He brought out the paint-stained overalls he had used earlier in the week and thrust them impatiently at John. The overalls were far too long in the leg but John did his best to roll them up neatly. Sherlock examined him critically; teamed with the flat cap, if he kept his head down John should pass muster on the CCTV at least for a while. Sherlock himself donned his retired bookseller’s garb, including the spectacles and stuffed their original clothing into the bag before instructing John to wait ten minutes before leaving the premises.
They met up (on Sherlock’s orders) on the Northbound platform of the Highbury and Islington line. John’s sole attempt to ask where they were headed was greeted with a contemptuous snort and a stony indifference. Further attempts to attract Sherlock’s attention were met with a complete lack of reaction.
Dusk was drawing in by the time Sherlock and John reached the Kingsland Basin. Sherlock was distantly amused to note that he had no need to climb the chain link fence this time; Kristie had clearly been watching out for them.
“And you must be Sherlock’s partner, Doctor Watson,” she said, eyeing John shrewdly as she opened the gate to let them into the basin.
“His friend,” John corrected, risking a glance at Sherlock’s stony profile.
“Is there a difference?” Kristie asked, genuinely interested. John just smiled.
Sherlock strode onto the boat, pointedly closing the doors in Kristie’s face, and swept his laptop up from the table, collapsing with it in a sprawl on a padded bench. John divested himself of his overalls and prowled around the boat, poking into the galley, familiarising himself with the layout.
It didn’t take long. The area they had entered was clearly an eating/living area with an L-shaped padded bench around a table designed to be converted into an extra berth if needed. The adjoining compartment was evidently the galley, sparsely furnished and rather cramped but containing all the basics as far as John could tell at a glance. A bathroom followed containing a sink, WC and a shower and finally, deep in the bow, was the main bedroom containing a full width bed, lights and cupboards above it and precious little else.
John wandered back into the living compartment and stood surveying the scene with his hands on his hips.
“You can take the bed,” Sherlock murmured squinting at the screen, “I probably won’t sleep tonight.” He looked up at John. “You’ll probably find a radio or something there too – I’m afraid there’s no television.” He moved to the table and started typing feverishly.
“Cheers,” John responded, not without sarcasm. Sherlock closed his eyes then hurriedly opened them again to escape the miasma of red rage searing into his retinas. He looked up, puzzled at John’s flat tone and lack of co-operation.
“Why won’t you talk to me?” John demanded.
Sherlock clenched his fists and took a deep, unsteady breath then let it out in a rush. To hell with it, he thought and rose abruptly from the sofa.
“I don’t want to talk to you,” Sherlock began, “because if I do, I’m likely to start and not stop.”
John shook his head in puzzlement. “What do you mean?” he asked.
Sherlock’s jaw worked. “I’m angry,” he admitted, “in point of fact, I’m bloody furious.”
“Why?” John sounded completely mystified. “Look, Sherlock, I’m safe – they didn’t harm me…”
Sherlock shook his head violently. “Of course they didn’t harm you John; don’t be obtuse!” he growled.
“Then why was I…?”
“Because you belong to me, that’s why!”
Sherlock jammed a hand in his hair and paced up and down the tiny cabin; it didn’t take long. He turned back to John.
“I have been hoodwinked,” he ground out between his teeth as though the admission physically hurt him. “I have been headed off, pushed and dragged in all directions, distracted and pulled away from what should have been the main issue. I have been herded, John (how bloody dare they?), treated like some common, ordinary person without the ability to reason, kept off-balance and forced to divert my attention to solving distractions instead of getting close to the main event. Even now, it may be too late.”
“What are you talking about?” John planted his hands on his hips and glared. “Are you saying my kidnapping was – a distraction? An unimportant little diversion to put the great Sherlock Holmes off the scent?”
Sherlock brushed this away irritably. “Oh, don’t take on like that, John,” he scoffed, “I thought you realised…”
“That I’m about as unimportant as your pet dog – yes, I had kind of worked that one out!”
John turned on his heel and stomped over to the window. “Sherlock, I was abducted from a house call, in broad daylight in a Transit van,” he said, his voice rising. “I was kept for days in an office block, existing on pre-packed sandwiches – I never want to see another tuna mayo again – and back issues of the Reader’s Digest. I think I have a right to know what the hell is going on!”
“You were lucky!” roared Sherlock in reply.
The two men glared at each other through the impasse.
“It could have been Hello magazine,” Sherlock finished in a quieter tone.
John could not stop his lips from twitching. He saw Sherlock register the fact and sighed, his shoulders slumping. “Or Nuts,” he added.
Sherlock frowned and raised his eyebrows.
“What?” John demanded, “Don’t you know what Nuts is?”
Sherlock persisted in his quizzical look.
John sighed. “It’s a lad’s mag,” he replied wearily and when Sherlock did not respond, “A periodical containing photographs of naked women and articles giving advice on what to do with them.”
“The women – oh, for crying out loud!”
Sherlock smirked, some of his anger dissipating. “It was unfortunate you had to be involved in this,” he continued in a more conciliatory tone. “Of course, I am in no way claiming responsibility, but the fact remains that were you not my flatmate, this would not have happened.”
John sighed. “If I weren’t your flatmate,” he muttered resignedly, “a lot of things wouldn’t have happened.”
Sherlock had the grace to look at little shamefaced at this. He suddenly got up from the table and opened a drawer in the built-in cupboard against one side of the deck. He withdrew what looked like a sophisticated carpenter’s spirit level.
John eyed it and frowned. He nodded at it. “What are you up to now?” he asked warily.
Sherlock gave John a quick grin. “This is something I developed as a defence against Mycroft’s infernal snooping,” he continued, brandishing the device. “He’s aware of its existence, of course, but he hasn’t managed to find a way of counteracting it yet.”
“Snooping? Counteracting…” John spluttered, “Wait a minute. Are you telling me this place is bugged? For heaven’s sake, why? Sherlock, what the hell have you got yourself into now? Get off me!”
John pushed away Sherlock’s hand as he began to run the spirit level over John’s shoulders and arms.
Sherlock rested down on his haunches, withdrew his arm and looked up at John. “Not the boat,” he said, “Kristie swept this place for listening devices when she stocked the fridge two days ago.” He continued running the device over John’s clothes.
“So you’re checking me for bugs?” John managed. Sherlock manoeuvred him around like a marionette without answering.
“Just lift your right leg out of the way, will you?” he said then looked up and smiled grimly as the device let out a beep. “That’ll probably be your belt,” he said conversationally. “Take it off, there’s a good chap and I’ll check it. Take the rest of it off while you’re about it, will you? Now we’ve established that you’ve been got at, I doubt they stopped at one.”
John gaped. “You want me down to my skin?” he managed.
“Just your underwear,” Sherlock replied, still concentrating on the scanner, “unless you’re still broadcasting by that time, of course.” He flashed John a tight grin that made the other man drop his eyes.
John fumbled hurriedly with his clothing to cover his confusion, discarding each item in turn to be seized and scanned by Sherlock before being cast aside. The scanner beeped twice more as Sherlock ran it over John’s shoes.
Sherlock shook his head derisively. “Pathetic lack of imagination,” he scoffed, “Stowed in the heel cavity – both of them. What sort of training are these people receiving these days? Government cutbacks always cause absolute chaos for the security services.”
“The security services?”
Sherlock turned at John’s exclamation. His flatmate stood in nothing but his boxers and an expression of deep shock; Hmm, Sherlock thought. He threw John his clothes minus the belt and the shoes; they landed on the floor as John made no attempt to catch them.
“Who else?” Sherlock asked sounding bored. “You weren’t ever under the impression that we were up against independent contractors, were you?”
John started to pick up his trousers, moving mechanically his expression very worried. Sherlock prowled around the boat until he found a toolbox, located and removed the bug in John’s belt and started in on the shoes. He tossed the scanner to John. “Here,” he said, “you may as well do me – for the sake of completeness.”
John ran the device over Sherlock, starting at his head and working gradually downwards. The device beeped once and their eyes met. Sherlock thinned his lips. He began to unbutton his shirt.
“If the scanner says I’m live, then I’m live,” Sherlock remarked conversationally. “It’s almost fool proof.”
John stared. “Is this the first time you’ve used this gismo on yourself since you’ve been here?” he demanded.
Sherlock looked slightly nonplussed. “I had no reason to assume…”
“You’ve always told me never to assume anything,” John shot back. For once, Sherlock kept silence.
John swept all of Sherlock’s clothes several times over as he removed them with no result. With an impatient sigh, Sherlock tossed John his boxers but even these defied the odds.
“You’re still broadcasting,” John said, frowning as he ran the scanner once more over Sherlock’s body.
“Oh, for god’s sake!” Sherlock breathed, trying to stay still, impatience zinging through him.
“Just a moment,” John paused and doubled back over Sherlock’s right calf. He made two passes over it and the machine beeped each time. John looked up and met Sherlock’s eye.
“There’s a scar here,” John said reluctantly, “Quite a deep wound.”
Sherlock nodded. “Yes,” he replied in an unusually subdued tone. “I sustained that particular injury falling from a great height into a – into a refuse vehicle.”
The silence was thick. John cleared his throat self-consciously. “When you jumped off the roof of Barts Hospital, you mean?” he asked unnecessarily; his voice was harsh.
Sherlock nodded without speaking.
“And the wound was stitched up later by – Molly?” John continued.
Sherlock closed his eyes. “John,” he began, “I know we never really discussed what happened in detail, but…”
John shook his head. “I’m not trying to re-open old wounds,” he said. Sherlock raised his eyebrows. “At least, not metaphorically,” John amended, the ghost of a smile chasing itself across his face, “I’m just asking whether it was Molly who sewed you up afterwards.”
Sherlock shook his head. “No,” he replied, “she sent another doctor – something about having to be there to sign off Moriarty’s body. No one else could do that apparently, but her colleague could and did repair the damage I sustained in the fall.”
“How much damage?” John asked quietly.
Sherlock shrugged. “Broken radius and ulna, right arm;” he began, “broken collarbone; broken tib and fib, right leg; concussion; two broken ribs; dislocated shoulder; skull fracture…”
“My god!” John turned away, jamming his hands on his hips and ducking his head.
“The injuries took some time to fully heal, John,” Sherlock said softly, “but the scarring was minimal and my recovery was complete. The calf wound was one of the worst, actually; it was the only injury that required sutures.”
John nodded. “Yes,” he replied, his voice rough, “and whoever stitched you up really did stitch you up, didn’t they? Were they, whoever they are, after you even then? How did they even know?”
Sherlock shook his head slowly then abruptly seemed to wake up. “We can’t waste any more time,” he said, springing into action and rummaging in a cupboard under the bench, oblivious to the fact that he was still completely naked.
John’s mouth set in a hard line. “What are you looking for?” he asked.
“This,” announced Sherlock, emerging from the cupboard clutching a doctor’s bag.
John went very still. “You’re asking me to perform surgery to take out something buried in the muscle of your leg?” he said.
Sherlock shrugged. “Well, that seems to be the only real answer to the problem, doesn’t it?” he replied. “You said it yourself – I’m still broadcasting, so the bug must have healed into the muscle. Here – see what you can find.”
Sherlock gestured to his calf, sitting down on the bench as he did so.
John didn’t move. “See what I can…” he repeated incredulously. “Sherlock, this is surgery, it’s not some random game of hide and seek!”
“I’m aware of that,” Sherlock snapped back, “It’s my leg after all. Look John, just examine the muscle in my calf; see if you can feel anything unusual. If it’s there at all, it’ll be pretty small...”
Sherlock stretched out his lower leg and looked expectantly towards John. The other man sank slowly to his knees, his eyes fixed solidly at ground level, and reached out a hand. He gave an impatient sigh, withdrew and placed both hands behind his back.
“Sherlock,” John said between clenched teeth, his eyes darting around the room, “this might seem picky but most people I treat for problems in the lower leg don’t usually take all their kit off first. Would you mind putting something on? Anything will do, even a tea towel.”
Sherlock snorted and fished his boxers from the floor.
“Better?” he demanded sarcastically.
“Much thanks,” John replied, equally acerbic. Professional mask now firmly in place, he turned to examine the healed wound, gently palpating the muscle around the scar.
“There’s definitely something here,” he declared at length. “It’s pretty small, but it’s quite deeply buried in the muscle. I can’t get at it without proper asepsis and anaesthetics.”
“I’m afraid you’re going to have to, John,” Sherlock responded with adamant composure. “We don’t have theatre facilities here and that transmitter has to come out.”
John glared at him then immediately started rummaging through the bag, muttering to himself as he did so. After a few moments, he threw it aside with a sound of disgust.
“It’s out of the question,” John said. “Look, there’s no surgical kit, just a scalpel and some forceps; there’s no local anaesthetic, no decent oral painkillers…
“There are sutures, alcohol rubs and latex gloves, John,” Sherlock interrupted, “and the scalpel is new, not even out of its plastic. As for analgesia, I know there’s no lidocaine, but there’s morphine…”
“If you think I’m giving morphine to an addict, you can think again,” John shot back before he had clearly thought it out. He winced as Sherlock’s face went carefully blank.
“Nevertheless,” Sherlock responded after a beat or two, “you may have to do exactly that – unless you want to give me a handkerchief to bite on in time-honoured fashion, of course.”
“That’s what you deserve, you contrary bastard,” John muttered, going back to his rummaging. He looked up at Sherlock.
“You’re asking me to cut into perfectly healthy, healed flesh and it’s going to hurt,” John said bluntly. “I’ve got no x-ray facilities to help me narrow down the site and no adequate tools to minimise the potential damage. You’re expecting me to rummage around in your leg muscles blind, Sherlock.”
Sherlock nodded gravely. “Yes,” he said, “I am, and you’d better get on with it because time’s a-wasting.”
John used the base of the bench as his operating table, cleared of the cushions and opened out into a berth with a clean cotton sheet spread over it. He sterilised the scalpel and forceps as best he could with boiling water and checked that the bag contained sufficient antibiotics to take care of the infection he feared would set in after such rudimentary care. With fingers as steady as a rock, John reached for the syringe.
The morphine slipped easily into Sherlock’s bloodstream. He felt his facial muscles relax as the drug took effect and stared blankly at the bulkhead opposite, fascinated by the faint brushstrokes still visible in the paint. The pain of John’s first incision was sharp enough to make him flinch and bite off a curse. The sting of a further injection had him opening his mouth to protest, finding the idea amusing as images of stable doors and horses coursed through his mind. He smiled. Some little part of him was not sanguine about the potential post-operative period, but the rest was too high to worry overmuch.
“Ah!” A small exclamation from John pulled Sherlock momentarily away from his navel-gazing to regard a tiny, blood-covered black object held fast in the forceps. Sherlock reached for John’s wrist and grasped bare skin.
“Don’t – damage it!” he managed. John frowned.
“Why not?” he demanded, looking for all the world as though all he wanted was to beat hell out of the tiny object in payment for what its existence had obliged him to do.
“Just keep it safe – and the others.” Sherlock sank back onto the bed. There was something he had to say before he passed out; he just had to remember… Oh, yes; John.
“My laptop,” he managed. “Read the files in the folder named “Anthea” – it’s Hidden so you’ll have to Search for it.”
“What’s your password?” John demanded urgently, seeing Sherlock’s eyes closing. Sherlock jerked awake at that and beckoned John closer, whispering in his ear.
John smiled. “You bastard,” he murmured. “How did you know I had more than one middle name?”
Sherlock relaxed onto the hard surface, luxuriating in the feeling of total wellbeing that suffused his body. He transferred his attention to his fingers still wrapped round John’s wrist and was transfixed by the smoothness of John’s skin. He stroked gently with one hand and smiled.
“Sherlock,” John said carefully, not turning away or attempting to dislodge the grasping hand.
“Soft,” Sherlock said quietly. He slid his hand up John’s arm until he reached his bicep. “Extraordinary,” he whispered. He could feel every single crease in John’s skin, every hair, even the play of the tendons and bones beneath the surface. He looked up into John’s worried face saw the face of an angel limned with gold from the overhead light. A frowning angel, perhaps, but nevertheless…
“Sherlock,” John said again, more urgently this time.
“Don’t frown, John,” Sherlock said so quietly that John had to lean closer again, “It’s all fine.”
Sherlock suppressed a giggle at his own unconscious mimicry. He leaned into John until he could feel the tide of the other man’s breath, breathe it into his own lungs. He ran his free hand over John’s face, smoothing out the worry lines with his fingertips. He pushed his fingers into John’s hair, running them through the coarse strands, amazed at the texture.
“Steady,” John said, gently capturing the questing fingers and returning them to bed level. He smiled tightly. “You really don’t want to do that, trust me,” he said. “I haven’t showered since I was snatched – barely managed to grab a quick wash now and then. My hair is absolutely rank so I really wouldn’t handle it too much if I were you.”
“Don’t care,” Sherlock whispered, but the morphine was stronger and oblivion was welcome.
Sherlock opened his eyes and groaned. His body was heavy and sore, his eyelids felt rough and sandy and his tongue tasted like something had crawled into his mouth during the last few hours and died there.
“The sleeper wakes.”
The voice was definitely John’s but Sherlock kept very still, certain that if he moved anything at all, even his eyelids, he would shatter into a million tiny pieces. He whimpered softly at the pain in his stomach, his head, his muscles…
“You didn’t tell me you had a dependence,” John said in a curiously flat tone. Sherlock gathered up his courage and swallowed deliberately, readying his vocal chords for action.
“I don’t,” he croaked, “This will go off very soon; I just have, uh, a bit of a sensitivity for morphine, that’s all.”
“Through years of misuse?” John suggested. He gestured towards Sherlock’s pained and sweating body. “This,” he said, “looks to me like dependence – physical dependence.”
John ran a hand through his hair clean, Sherlock noted; he must have used the shower and gave an agitated sigh. “If I had known,” he said reprovingly, “I would never have given it to you, let alone the quantity it took to numb the pain.”
“I told you, I’m not dependent. Give me a moment.” Sherlock let out a long breath then slowly levered himself upright, trying to work through the malaise. The living compartment swam into view and he blinked hard, trying to focus. He noted the two pillows, clearly taken from the bedroom, and a heavy woollen blanket tucked around him which together made a bed of sorts. He swallowed painfully. “How long was I out?” he asked.
John shrugged. “Three hours,” he replied succinctly, “most of it spent delirious and sweating. You tried to throw up several times but you’ve clearly been pulling your old starvation trick; fortunate for me if not exactly healthy for you. Now, drink this and take these.”
John held out a glass of water, two white tablets and a coloured capsule. “Painkill – don’t worry, it won’t make you drowsy,” he intoned, “and antibiotics. I shudder to think what could have got into that wound.” Sherlock downed all of it with unaccustomed meekness. He noted that someone had managed to put a shirt on him, probably to try to mitigate some of the shivering.
John sat down on a hard wooden chair. “What is this place, Sherlock?” he asked.
“Didn’t Kristie tell you?” Sherlock replied, still gritting his teeth.
John’s lips thinned and he nodded. “Alright, I supposed I walked into that one,” he said.
Sherlock shrugged. “She was the only person you had met in the Basin and you could see that I clearly trusted her,” he replied. “It wasn’t a big leap to make. She watched over me while you showered?”
“And ate something, yes,” John replied. “Jonathan was here too, and someone called Dawn – red dreadlocks – who seems to be the go to girl for any engine troubles. There are others too. Who are they, Sherlock? I asked Kristie what the connection was, but she just laughed and told me you go way back.”
Sherlock looked amused. “That is indeed the case,” he replied. He shifted into a more comfortable sitting position.
“Here,” John held out a dressing gown made of some warm woollen material. “Found this in the bedroom; thought you could do with it. The blanket belongs to Kristie; she wants it back when you’re done.”
Sherlock accepted the item gratefully and tugged it round his shoulders. He sipped at the water, already feeling some of his energy returning. He sat back, leaning on the gunwale behind him and looked at John.
“Kristie’s family have been living on narrow boats for generations,” he began. “They have always worked the Kingsland Basin but times being what they are, the family dwindled, went to live landside, gave up the boating business for more profitable pursuits in the City, etc. etc. and Kristie’s father was the last survivor. When he died, he Willed the basin and all its mooring rights to Kristie but his Will was challenged by a property development company. They already owned all the derelict land on the shores of the Basin and they contested that Kristie’s family had never actually had title to the basin at all.”
Sherlock paused and winced as a spike of nausea reminded him it wasn’t over yet. “I was able to prove that the property company was not only attempting to defraud Kristie but was also guilty of deception in their purchase of the surrounding land; their methods of obtaining planning permission to develop the sites were also called into question. As a result, the company went into liquidation, title to the surrounding land is in dispute, the development plans have been put on hold and Kristie has sole title to the Kingsland Basin.”
John smiled. “A story with a happy ending,” he replied, “I like that; it doesn’t often happen, particularly with developers.”
Sherlock’s smile widened. “Ah, but it doesn’t end there,” he continued. “Kristie set up the Basin in trust for the benefit and education of the community here in Hackney. As a registered charity, it is on a much safer financial footing and provides an alternative lifestyle for those who want such things but also want to stay in London. In my opinion, they are a rather idealistic group but their principles appear to be sound.”
“And you get a narrow boat out of it, is that the deal?” John asked.
“In a way,” Sherlock pursed his lips and inhaled deeply. “I have had the use of the Madrigal for several years, John,” he continued. “It belonged to Kristie’s father and comes with a permanent mooring – do you know how rarely they become available in London? I lived here for a while after an explosion made my apartment at Montague Street uninhabitable.” Sherlock shot a sharp glance at John’s sudden frown and waved his free hand airily. “It was an accident and completely and utterly not my fault – well, almost completely anyway – but my landlord decided to be unreasonable and threw me out. He said he wouldn’t press charges if I waived the notice period.”
Sherlock’s generous mouth turned down at the corners; John tried not to laugh.
“Oh, you may well find it amusing, John,” Sherlock huffed, “For me it was damned inconvenient. Charming as this location undoubtedly is, the inconveniences far outweigh the advantages. I was still living here when Mike Stamford introduced us; I must say that after several months on the Madrigal, Baker Street was a blessed relief.”
Sherlock breathed in deeply, already feeling his strength returning. He swung his legs over the edge of the bed, noting that that his right leg was bandaged below the knee; the wound throbbed dully but seemed to be quite small. Sherlock shifted his weight gingerly and tried to stand, more or less successfully.
“Woah!” said John, immediately coming to his aid, grasping his arm firmly, “I’m not sure you’re ready for this.”
“Nonsense, John,” Sherlock replied firmly. He tested the muscle; it held. “It was scarcely a major procedure,” he griped, “and I have to get back on my feet as soon as possible.” He straightened up, his breathing returning to normal; well, more or less.
John shook his head and his features morphed into a familiar stubborn expression.
Sherlock rolled his eyes. “Don’t make that face,” he protested, “There’s a lot still to do. It’s not over yet, you know, not by a long shot.”
John scratched the back of his neck. “Yes,” he said thoughtfully, “about that.”
Sherlock frowned and looked around the living compartment, suddenly ravenously hungry. “Is there any food in this benighted establishment?” he demanded, “Or do I have to order in?” He flexed his leg gingerly; it hurt but it would hold up.
John stared at him then shrugged. “How would I know? It’s your place, Sherlock,” he replied, “at least, I’m assuming it is. What, has the morphine given you the munchies or something?”
On cue, Sherlock’s stomach rumbled and he scowled. “Very funny,” he said without amusement, “I just need something to eat, that’s all. Is that too much for an invalid to ask? Is there any bread in the galley?” He started to limp over to the companionway but John put a hand on his arm and held him back.
John’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. “Stop stalling, Sherlock,” he demanded flatly. “What the hell is going on here?”
Sherlock paused and sighed. “That, John,” he replied, “is a much more difficult and involved question than you imagine.”
John frowned. “I don’t imagine anything,” he replied, “I’m just asking for a bit of information, that’s all.”
Sherlock looked up directly at his friend and colleague and spread his hands. “Very well,” he said brightly, “what do you want to know?”
John threw his hands in the air. “Where do I start?” he said, walking around the tiny compartment as best he could. “How about the bugs in my clothes? Oh, and also in your leg, Sherlock; your leg!”
“That was hardly my fault, John,” Sherlock replied, “Come on, be fair! I scarcely asked for Molly’s colleague to sew a tracking device into me!”
Sherlock spread his hands out in a big dramatic gesture; his left hand dragged across the top of the counter next to the bench and knocked something onto the floor with a clatter. Sherlock picked it up absently, noting that it was the scanner they had used earlier. He turned it on to check for damage.
“Sherlock, I’ve been kidnapped in broad daylight,” John ranted, “kept prisoner for days against my will, dragged around parts of London I didn’t even know existed, obliged to perform minor surgery with no asepsis and precious little anaesthetic…”
John spun round, putting his hands through his hair in utter exasperation. Sherlock glanced at the reading on the scanner and did a double take.
“…and then given a series of documents to read that clearly contain top-secret information and details of things that, if I didn’t know better, I would assume came out of a Robert Ludlum novel,” John continued. He glared at Sherlock who slowly rose from the bench staring intently at the scanner.
“I mean, your brother’s department is certainly influential,” John went on, “and he obviously has considerable sway with the home office, but some of the stuff in that folder is just sheer fantasy; it has to be!”
Sherlock lifted his eyes from the scanner and fixed them on the overhead light fitment, squinting to make sure of what he had seen. His expression changed as he lifted the device and heard it beep.
“Sherlock, some of the material is absolutely terrifying,” John continued, oblivious of his companion’s growing consternation, “and if I for one moment thought it were true, I’d be shivering under my bed waiting for the world to end. I mean, surely Mycroft just cannot have had the desire or the resources to have interfered with the Hong Kong Stock… mmph!”
Sherlock turned, took two small steps, grabbed John’s head by his jaw and silenced the flow of words with his own mouth.
John froze suddenly in shock, then raised his hands to Sherlock’s shoulders and pushed hard. “Just a minute,” he growled. “What the hell is this? I asked you a question…”
“And I’m answering it,” Sherlock responded, diving straight back in again. Please, John, just go with it, he pleaded silently. He pushed John roughly up against the wall, wincing as the action stretched his sutures, and held him there tightly, one hand gripping under his jaw. He forced John’s mouth open and deepened the kiss, tangling their tongues, exploring each and every surface with meticulous care. It was wet and messy and surprisingly satisfying.
John did not struggle. An ex-soldier would know the value of a well-executed choke-hold, Sherlock thought, and would also know to bide his time until his opponent relaxed his vigilance sufficiently before striking; Sherlock hoped the fleeting memory of Irene Adler would prompt John to avoid his nose and teeth this time too. Sherlock dragged his mouth over the skin of John’s jaw and ear.
“Sherlock,” John breathed warningly.
“Shut up,” Sherlock said and bit John along the tendon in his neck for emphasis. A silent shudder ran through John’s body and his hips jerked involuntarily. Sherlock paused with a frown; this was new.
There was the waited-for moment of inattention. John broke Sherlock’s hold with the ease of long practice and Sherlock found himself spun round, his arm twisted up between his shoulder blades, and slammed face first into the wall. John leaned hard on him until Sherlock grunted in pain.
“I don’t know what the fuck is going on with you,” John ground out into Sherlock’s ear, “but it had better be good, do you hear?”
Sherlock fought to turn his head. “Bedroom,” he managed to gasp.
John’s eyebrows disappeared into his hairline. “Excuse me?” he said, involuntarily relaxing from sheer surprise.
“Take me into the bedroom,” Sherlock amplified. He took his chance and twisted, breaking John’s suddenly nerveless hold and turning the tables. He pinned John with the self-same arm-lock, jerking hard and forcing the other man to walk in front of him.
“Come on, John,” he panted with the effort. “We can’t do it here.”
Swaying from side to side, they lurched unsteadily down the companionway and over the threshold of the master bedroom. Sherlock slammed the hatch behind him, turned and found John in his face. Sherlock had time to open his mouth and half raise his hands before John was on him, grabbing him round the back of the neck and kissing him full on the mouth. Sherlock put his hands to John’s shoulders with the serious intention of disentangling himself gently but John turned out to be surprisingly determined now the boot was on the other foot. Sherlock yelped involuntarily as his hips were pulled hard against John’s body; he could not seem to catch his breath somehow. The mattress caught John at the knees and they went down together, Sherlock on top, in a tangle of limbs and tongues. Sherlock gasped at the feeling of John’s erection hard against his hip.
“John,” Sherlock managed quietly into the other man’s ear, between hard, muddled kisses, “we need to talk.” He was still holding the scanner; it was getting in the way.
John answered by flipping them over in a move that had to have come from unarmed combat training, trapping Sherlock’s arms above his head with one hand. “No,” he replied, ripping at the buttons of Sherlock’s shirt with his other hand, “we don’t.”
Sherlock gave a sudden shudder as John's lips moved wetly over his ear and throat. He swallowed convulsively and made a supreme effort to speak.
“John, you really must underst… oh!”
He sucked in a shocked breath as John’s teeth grazed a particularly sensitive spot around his collarbone. He felt a cool trail spread over his bare skin as John’s mouth made its inexorable way south. Sherlock made another spirited effort to regain control of his speech centres.
“Look, I’m sorry if I led you to…”
Sherlock gulped as John’s tongue briefly flicked at one brown nipple before diving down to investigate his navel. Sherlock struggled vainly to regain his composure, and possibly his boxers although he had to admit the jury was out on that one. In all the time Sherlock had known him, John had never given any kind of sign that he was… that he might be…
Sherlock frowned; he couldn’t seem to keep his thoughts focussed. This was, well – all very unexpected. Sherlock had never before considered the inherent truth in such a trite saying; some things really did take one totally by…
John raised his head and grinned cheerfully from between Sherlock’s legs. “If I’d known this was all I had to do to get you to shut up,” he replied, “I’d have tried it years ago.”
John bent his head and put his mouth back to work; Sherlock simply lay and writhed. A small part of him yammered that the aftermath of this was likely to be fierce. The rest of his brain temporarily shut down; he closed his eyes and allowed the scanner to fall out of his nerveless hand.
A delicious lassitude spread through Sherlock’s muscles as he turned over on his back. The morphine? No, this is a natural high – I must have slept for a while. He opened one eye and stared vacantly at the overhead; it was cracked and the paint was flaking in places. One day, he thought, he would have to arrange for the boat to be completely renovated – when he had time. He sighed and stretched again, folding his hands underneath his head.
“Was this your intention all along, Sherlock, or did you have some other purpose in dragging me into your bedroom?”
Sherlock turned his head at John’s amused tone, pleasantly surprised to note that despite the brutal ache from his calf, he felt really quite well. That would be the endorphins released during orgasm, his brain supplied; the body’s natural painkillers. Not to mention dopamine, serotonin and adrenaline together with vasopressin, prolactin and oxytocin, but it was probably a little too early to be thinking of the last three in any meaningful sense seeing as it has been scientifically proved that vasopressin and oxytocin are more concerned with attachment than attraction…
John’s tone was strident enough to indicate that this was not the first time he had tried to gain Sherlock’s attention.
Sherlock shook his head as if to clear it. “You called?” he replied, focussing on his companion.
John’s hair was sticking up in spikes, his neck and chest sported several livid red marks and his whole body, as far as Sherlock could see it, was damp with sweat. He had never looked better; Sherlock wanted to see that look on John more often, preferably back at Baker Street. That last thought surprised him with its intensity.
John smiled and tried again. “I asked if you’d had anything else in mind when you…”
Sherlock nodded. “Yes, I heard you the first time,” he replied, “but I couldn’t quite determine how to reply. Yes, I did have an ulterior motive; yes, I achieved my object anyway; and no, I don’t regret the rest of it in the least. Are you satisfied with that? Or shall we talk it to death?”
John shook his head and laughed, turning onto his back and flinging an elbow over his eyes. The sheet rode further down his hips as he wriggled and Sherlock found himself tracking its progress with some interest.
“Okay,” John said, lowering his arm and turning his head on the pillow to look at Sherlock. “Okay, if you didn’t actually bring me in here in order to jump me, why did you?”
“Because the scanner detected a listening device in the living compartment,” Sherlock replied promptly. He sat up, gathering the sheet around his waist and leaning his elbows on his knees.
John stared, eyes widening. “This boat was bugged too? But you said Kristie…”
“And so she did,” Sherlock replied, “However, this one appears to have got through the net.”
Sherlock leaned over the edge of the bed and groped for the device. Scooping it up, he activated it and ran it over the bed; the machine remained silent. Sherlock leaped up, stark naked, and moved carefully around the compartment, running the device over curtains and walls, light fitments and cupboards; nothing.
Sherlock let out a relieved breath and deactivated the scanner. He turned back to John who had sat up in the bed and was regarding him with every sign of renewed interest. Sherlock smirked and deliberately looked down to where the sheet was lying over John’s lap; John reddened and lowered his eyes, bunching the sheet up to obscure his outline. Sherlock climbed back into bed, dropping a quick kiss on the top of John’s head by way of apology. The surprised look on the other man’s face made Sherlock clear his throat awkwardly.
“Listening devices are cheap to produce but costly in time and expertise to install, especially when the other party is aware of the practice,” Sherlock began didactically. “Mycroft alone is aware of this particular bolthole of mine and he has tried several times to bug it, for his own peculiar nefarious or prurient reasons – who knows why Mycroft does what he does? Anyway, after the fourth set of devices ended up at the bottom of the Regent’s Canal, he seemed to give up. I am, after all, resident on this boat only very occasionally so I imagine he simply lost interest. I admit to being rather surprised when the scanner registered positive in the living compartment. I couldn’t be sure that the bedroom was clean, but I figured that if I forced you in here, the chances were good that you would stop talking – for one reason or another.” Sherlock raised an eyebrow; his eyes were alight with mischief. “We’ll give the rest of the boat another sweep shortly,” he said, relaxing back against the pillow. “Well, after we get up, anyway.”
John smiled. “And that’s your excuse for jumping me, is it?” he replied casually, “I mean, for the record?”
Sherlock shrugged. “You were about to relate everything you had read in Anthea’s files at high volume,” he said simply, “I couldn’t risk whoever is listening in having that sort of information – I had to do something.”
Still smiling, John leaned over to press a kiss to Sherlock’s lips, effectively putting a stop to any further protests. Sherlock stilled for a moment before responding slowly and carefully as though cataloguing a new skill. He drew his fingers gently over the short hairs at the back of John’s neck and John shivered, inhaling quickly through his nose. Sherlock pulled away but left his hand in place.
“This really wasn’t what I had in mind, you know,” he said, index finger absently inscribing small circles over John’s cervical vertebrae.
John bit his top lip. “I think I gathered that,” he replied. “Well, after it was pretty much too late to stop.”
Sherlock chuckled on an outbreath and stretched his spine languidly, curling an arm under his head. John’s eyes flicked up and down his pale torso before fixing on his face and encountering the familiar smirk.
“I think after what we have just done, John, you may be permitted to examine the goods – if you wish to, that is,” Sherlock said, bending his knees under the bedding for the express purpose of making the sheet slip past his hip bones. John reached forward and pulled it away.
Sherlock was not a modest man. Whether expounding gleefully on his latest deductions or concertising on his violin, he seldom bothered to hide his intellectual superiority or his indifference to any opinion other than his own. Strangely, however, he was both unaware of and unmoved by his own physical appearance. Skin was skin and flesh was flesh, and both existed to keep one’s muscles covered and one’s insides contained respectively. Mrs Hudson was an old hand, a mother of sons, and rarely batted an eyelid at Sherlock’s penchant for strolling about 221B in his boxers or less. It appeared that John, however, had been scrupulously observing military etiquette, eyes stolidly front, until now.
John’s gaze travelled slowly over Sherlock’s skin, taking in its pallor, the smooth play of muscles under the surface, the unlikely muscularity of his upper arms. His eyes followed the trail of dark hair leading like an arrow from Sherlock’s navel downwards until it merged into a sparse collection of dark curls clustered around his genitals. Sherlock was already half-hard and rapidly coming to full mast under the intense scrutiny. John swallowed with a click of his throat then drew the sheet as far up to Sherlock’s neck as it would stretch and forced his eyes to return to the other man’s face. Sherlock raised a quizzical eyebrow.
“Distraction is well and good, and under normal circumstances I’m all for it,” John said with a determined tilt to his chin, “but even though you’ve explained the reason we ended up in this bed, I’m still just as confused as ever about what’s actually going on.”
John’s eyes were almost black in the dim light of the bedroom but his face brooked no denial. Sherlock nodded slowly, plumped up his pillow and pushed it underneath his head. He folded his hands in his lap and prepared to ignore the clamour of his body so as to order his thoughts.
“Once upon a time,” he began, “there was a very clever boy, so clever that he was selling completed degree essay papers to wealthy Oxbridge undergraduates while his age was still in single figures. He amassed a small private income drawn from an offshore account which financed his boarding school sherbet habit and later, while at Oxford, his collection of rare Wodehouse first editions. Imagine what this boy could achieve once he became a man – and then double it.”
“Your brother?” John asked.
Sherlock nodded. “Yes, Mycroft,” he replied, “and therein hangs a cautionary tale about centralised government; take out or suborn a key figure, cut him off from his contacts and supply lines and you can paralyse the whole civilised world, particularly if you co-ordinate your efforts with others of like mind.”
John frowned. “Are you telling me that your brother is a spy?” he demanded.
Sherlock gave him an incredulous stare and snorted derisively. “Of course Mycroft is a spy, John,” he replied, “Haven’t you been paying attention all this time?”
John made an irritated noise. “I know that,” he replied impatiently, “but what you’re saying makes it sound as though he’s, well, a double agent; a mole.”
“Yes,” Sherlock agreed, “and that’s one of the things I was supposed to suspect, I think. Mycroft and I have not been on what you could call cordial terms for some years, as you well know. I think I was supposed to believe he had turned, impossible as that may seem.”
“That’s ridiculous!” John scoffed. “Mycroft work against Britain? That’s as unlikely as the Queen setting up her official residence in Moscow - or Beijing.”
“They said the same about Philby,” Sherlock intoned gravely. “I have to confess, it could be true – but I don’t believe it is.”
“I should think not,” John replied stoutly. “Anyway, who are these people, Sherlock, and what are they trying to do?”
“It’s not what they’re trying to do, John,” Sherlock said soberly, “It’s what they have nearly succeeded in doing.”
The alarming material supplied by Anthea, Sherlock told him, was all completely genuine. Mycroft’s department was still functioning as normal, but not under his command. Certain other documents in the collection revealed the suspicion that Mycroft’s opposite number in the American Government had also been compromised. The material on the troll-shaped memory stick given to Sherlock by Alfred Oakley only served to provide confirmation, and reports coming in from Sherlock’s own contacts abroad detailed frankly alarming developments with regard to diplomatic and political situations in sensitive places such as Israel, Iran, Russia – and Afghanistan. John shifted uneasily.
Sherlock nodded. “They intend to escalate the war, John,” he said gently, “but that’s only a part of it; there’s much, much more at stake than Afghanistan alone.”
“So all Mycroft’s surveillance systems, his intelligence-gathering protocols, his diplomatic connections and leverage…” John began.
“Have, to a large degree, been hijacked, yes,” Sherlock finished for him.
John clenched his fists. “But who are they?” he demanded helplessly. “I mean, who is at the heart of it?”
“When I know that,” Sherlock replied gravely, “I will know how to stop them. You see, they thought they had covered all the bases but I’m certain there’s something amiss – they’ve been too confident.”
“You mean they’ve underestimated you?” John asked with a sly grin.
“I think that’s a fair assessment, yes,” Sherlock replied without rancour, “but they made an error. Understandable, to be sure, but nevertheless they were careless. I think they realised that with Mycroft taken out of the game, I was their next likeliest adversary. I think they knew that I could scupper their plans very quickly if I was allowed time to work through the data, so they tried to fix it so that I couldn’t. They were the reason I was summoned to an irresistible and intriguing case in Monte Carlo in the hope that Victor Trevor would distract me with me with good food, wine, luxury living and sex...”
“Sex?” John queried sharply.
Sherlock sighed and spread his hands. “One roll in the hay, John, and already you’re possessive?” He grinned suddenly. “Actually, Victor’s very much past history – merely an adolescent fling. Pleasant at the time, I grant you, but not built for the long haul.”
“The long haul, eh,” John said musingly with a small smile.
Sherlock’s eyes widened and he raised his eyebrows interrogatively.
John gave him a long, level look. “I think that’s a conversation for another day, don’t you?” he said softly.
Sherlock let his eyes slide away, his cheeks slightly flushed. “You never gave any indication that you…” he began and trailed off awkwardly.
“That I played for both teams?” John finished wryly. “No, I don’t suppose I did. I haven’t for a long time, actually; the military always frowned on anything outside the so-called norm until recently, so I stuck to the straight and narrow simply for the sake of convenience and a quiet life. Anyway,” he leaned over to poke Sherlock in the ribs.
“Hey!” Sherlock jerked away and glared.
John grinned. “Anyway,” he repeated, “you specifically told me you didn’t swing that way right at the start of this flatshare. That conversation is embedded in my permanent memory as one of the more toe-curlingly embarrassing things I have ever had to endure in a restaurant, particularly as I honestly wasn’t trying it on at the time.”
Sherlock took a careful breath. “To be fair, John,” he said slowly, “I didn’t make any real assertions one way or the other, just that I wasn’t, well, looking, which was perfectly true, as far as it went.”
“Married to your work,” John intoned slyly.
Sherlock twitched an eyebrow. “It’s a marriage of convenience,” he said, voice low and rumbling, “We have, ah, an understanding.”
“An open marriage, huh?” John replied, his own voice descending to match Sherlock’s pitch.
Sherlock wrapped his hand around the back of John’s neck and leaned over to give him a gentle, open-mouthed kiss. John’s lips were slightly chapped but his tongue was slick and warm against Sherlock’s. Lack of breath forced Sherlock to pull away but he let his head fall against the pillow, nuzzling into John’s neck, inhaling sweat and sex.
“Ugh!” John murmured, lifting his chin. “God, I need a shower! Sherlock, don’t put your nose in my armpit, that’s disgusting.”
“Rather less so than putting your penis in my mouth, I should think,” Sherlock responded amiably, “but I didn’t hear you complaining earlier.” He rested his chin in the dip of John’s breastbone and grinned up at him. “I should let you get kidnapped more often if this is the way you respond to being rescued.”
“Ah, now that’s unfair, Sherlock,” John protested, “seeing as it was you who started it. And while we’re on that subject, I still haven’t worked out how you knew it wasn’t me answering your emails.”
Sherlock smirked and lifted his chin to rest in his hands, his elbows on John’s chest. “It was simple really,” he replied, “In all the communications I received purportedly from you, you never once called me a wanker. In fact, you were far too polite – it was very strange and most uncharacteristic.”
John poked his tongue at Sherlock then lay back against his pillow and tried to digest what he had just heard. “So, what’s next?” he asked, turning and leaning his head against one elbow.
Sherlock made a face. “I unearth the second laptop I have stowed under the dresser against just such an emergency,” he replied, “fire up both that and the one I was using earlier and I get to work. There must be something I’m missing, John: some key thing that only I can shed light on. They tried to run me into the ground to prevent me from thinking. Well, now I’ve got a little time before they realise where we are…”
“But this place is wired,” John protested. “They have to know…”
Sherlock was shaking his head. “So are literally hundreds of other water-going craft in London,” he said, “not to mention houses, offices, doctors’ surgeries – you name it, they’ve bugged it. However, they have to find it first, amongst the thousands of other possibilities – there’s a limit to the resources available for surveillance analysis, even in Mycroft’s department. I estimate we’ve got about twenty-four to thirty-six hours to work with; after that, we’re well and truly up the creek.”
John sat bolt upright. “We’d better get moving then,” he said hurriedly swinging his legs over the bed and bending to grab for his trousers.
“Oh, don’t worry, John,” Sherlock replied, leaning on one elbow to watch the show with evident enjoyment. “I’m fairly certain it will take me less than an hour to work it out; these people are good but they’re not that good.”
“Then you can take a shower first while I fix us something to eat,” John responded, leaning over to run a hand through Sherlock’s hair. “No offence, but when was the last time you washed this?” He shoved his feet into his shoes and opened the bedroom door.
“You weren’t complaining earlier,” Sherlock shouted after him.
Five hours later, Sherlock was getting the uneasy feeling he had underestimated the opposition. The various leads he had extrapolated from Mr Chan’s analysis and Alfred Oakley’s collection of documents had petered out one by one into dead ends and false alarms.
“Damn it!” he ground out between his teeth, standing up and pacing around the bedroom agitatedly. The limited space in the compartment meant that this was a very short-lived exercise.
John looked up from where he was lying on the bed immersed in one of Jilly Cooper’s racier novels found on the bookshelf in the living area; he assumed it was Kristie’s – it was hardly likely to be Sherlock’s. “Not so simple then?” he commented mildly.
Sherlock did not bother to answer. “There has to be something, some kind of loose end.”
“It would help if you had some idea what you were looking for,” John put in. “I mean, are you looking for an inconsistency, a person, something forged, some dodgy figures – what?”
“I’ve told you, I don’t know!” Sherlock huffed, almost tearing his hair out. “Mycroft is the very devil when it comes to detail; nothing escapes him and no triviality is insignificant. He vets his staff with almost boring thoroughness on a constant basis – anything new is ruthlessly chased down and dissected down to quantum level. Anthea alone has three researchers responsible for her security status; Oakley, a similar number.”
John frowned and put his book aside. “Oakley?” he queried.
Sherlock nodded. “Mycroft’s second,” he replied, “and helpmeet, if you’ll pardon the term. I was never supposed to encounter him at all but circumstances changed that. He was the one who gave me… oh my god!” He swung back to his laptop and started typing furiously.
“Alfred Oakley,” he muttered. “Three Oakley alumni here – Peter, Charles and, ah yes! Alfred Oakley, ’83-’90, went on to Caius College Cambridge. Related? No, Peter and Charles are brothers; Alfred is not part of the same family…”
Another furious burst of typing and muttering; John repaired to the galley for a cup of tea. While he was there, he decided to make preparations for a meal of some kind and gave the contents of the freezer the once over. Frozen meals with an up-market label, a fairly wide variety – John raised his eyebrows; certainly better than the toast they’d had earlier. He opened the salad drawer – fresh vegetables, some of them clearly home grown, maybe from the community’s floating allotment. There was even some cold beer. He chose stuffed cappelletti and a chunky-looking Arrabiata sauce with some baby spinach and green tomatoes for quickness and ease of preparation, and set to work.
When he returned half an hour later with two steaming plates of food, Sherlock was sitting with his back against the bulkhead, his fingers arranged in the usual steeple.
“Alfred Oakley was wearing an Eton tie when he waylaid me here,” Sherlock said quietly, “and the Eton alumni site confirms that he attended for the full seven years. He was clearly fairly bright because he went on to Cambridge, Caius College, studying Classics.”
Sherlock paused and turned back to his computer. “He appears to have been an unremarkable student,” he added, “academically average, if anyone who attends Oxbridge can be described in such terms, achieving nothing at all to make him noticeable. He was so shy and retiring that he failed to appear in any photographs available either from Eton or from Cambridge. However, I discovered that he took a year’s worth of singing lessons whilst in the sixth form at Eton and deputised occasionally during his undergraduate years for a fellow student who held a choral scholarship at Clare.”
John peered over Sherlock’s shoulder.
“This is an informal picture of Clare College Choir that an alumnus put up on their Facebook page,” Sherlock continued. John squinted at a poorly scanned snap of a group of people in academic dress laughing and talking together on the banks of the River Cam with the College Backs behind them.
“The poster of this photograph has helpfully tagged all the members along with requests for them to get in touch,” Sherlock continued in a flat tone of voice. “You can see that Alfred, or Freddie as he was known then, Oakley is the one talking to the girl with red hair tagged Harriet Stoner.”
John took a closer look, blinked and looked back at Sherlock.
“Now that is a bit odd,” he replied. “Seeing as you didn’t mention it, I’m guessing the Alfred Oakley you met down at the Kingsland Basin didn’t have that pigmentation on his face, yes?”
“You guess correctly,” Sherlock replied, “although Alfred Oakley’s Home Office file does record him as having suffered from vitiligo as an adolescent. He appears to have made a full recovery.”
“Hmm, yes,” John stoked his chin thoughtfully. “Otherwise known as leucoderma. Normal skin that for no good reason suddenly loses its brown pigmentation; often on the face but can be anywhere on the body. Sufferers have been known to recover spontaneously although there’s some decent therapy available now. It’s thought to be an autoimmune problem but no one really knows.”
Sherlock nodded then gestured once again at the screen. “John, take a close look at his face; as close as you can,” he said. “Here – I’ll try to increase the resolution.”
Sherlock called up a specialist photo-manipulation program and got to work on Freddie Oakley.
“Wait a mo,” John squinted hard at the screen. “Sherlock, that patch - it’s the wrong colour for vitiligo. That’s a port wine stain.”
Sherlock looked at John with raised eyebrows until he elaborated. “It’s a vascular disorder, harmless but disfiguring,” John continued. “According to dermatologists, it’s permanent; there’s no treatment.”
The two men looked at each other.
“Well,” said John softly, “that really rather begs the question, doesn’t it? If it wasn’t Freddie Oakley you met the other night, who was it?”
Sherlock was silent and thoughtful over dinner and afterwards promptly immersed himself online with every indication of a long session. John was starting to get cabin fever and after clearing and washing up, he took a short walk around the basin in the gathering dusk.
Sherlock worked on oblivious, trawling through records, hacking into databases, chasing elusive titbits of information until the trails petered out.
“Anything new?” John shouted from the stern steps. Sherlock shook his head silently, not bothering to look up from his screen.
“I had a beer with Kristie and Jonathan,” John told him, hanging his jacket and moving through the living area to where Sherlock was ensconced in the bedroom. “Are they an item or what?”
“Definitely what,” Sherlock replied, fingers poised over the gateway to his brother’s database. He debated with himself for a moment then decided, reluctantly, that discretion was the better part of valour.
“Eh?” John stood with his hands on his hips frowning.
Sherlock sighed and lifted his head. “They’ve been occasionally together for as long as I’ve known them,” he replied. “It seems like an admirable arrangement to me.” He looked back at his screen.
“Is that what you want, then?” John asked in a quieter tone, “With me, I mean?”
The pregnant silence that followed prompted Sherlock to log out of his current timed window and to transfer his attention. “I don’t understand,” he said, frowning.
John shrugged. “Well, I mean,” he began, scratching the back of his neck, “to start with, we share a flat, and from what I can gather from your past, you don’t do this much…”
“Do what?” Sherlock interrupted; he raised his eyebrows impatiently.
“Well, this,” John floundered, gesturing inadequately between the two of them. “Relationships, shagging – sexual contact, if you prefer.”
“Which of those are you asking me about?” Sherlock shot back, his frown even deeper.
John waved his arms around helplessly. “I don’t know,” he replied, “Any or all of the above? It was just a question, Sherlock. Perhaps a bit premature, but I’d quite like to have a bit of a heads up on what you’re going to want from me in the future.”
Sherlock’s frown did not lift; if anything, it became more intense. He dropped his eyes back to his screen but his hands remained still.
John fidgeted. “Look,” he said quickly, “forget I said anything. Tell you what – I’ll just give the galley a bit of a once-over before I turn in, okay?” He turned rapidly on his heel.
“Don’t be ridiculous, John!” Sherlock responded automatically as John left the room. “Kristie and the other residents take care of all that.”
“Well, they haven’t been doing it too well lately,” John shouted back. “There’s mould around the sink – the seals need replacing. Believe it or not, there are fingerprints on the ceiling in the living compartment – someone must have changed one of the bulbs, because the fitting was loose. And the sheets on your bed haven’t been properly aired; they were damp!”
“They’re even damper now,” Sherlock replied smugly and wasn’t terribly surprised when he received no answer.
When John interrupted him some time later with a mug of tea, he was still relentlessly trawling.
“This is like searching for a Ford Fiesta at Heathrow when you don’t know the licence plate,” Sherlock complained. “The only thing we know for sure is that the man representing himself as Oakley is not the same man who attended Eton and Cambridge; the photograph is evidence of that.”
“Are you sure the photograph is correctly tagged?” John ventured. Sherlock nodded.
“Yes,” he replied, “I contacted the poster – he obligingly sent me several others of the Oakley he knew at Caius. They came in by email last night and I’ve just managed to download them – look!”
The man whose face was displayed in the photographs Sherlock brought up in Picture Viewer was small in stature and blond. He was smiling shyly and had instinctively turned the right side of his face towards the camera. There were five photographs in all; in one of them, evidently taken unawares, the man was wearing evening dress and sipping at a glass of champagne; the port wine stain was clearly visible.
“So where is the real Oakley now?” John asked, leaning over Sherlock’s shoulder.
“Who knows?” Sherlock sighed, “Probably hastily interred in a shallow grave somewhere as far away from Cambridge as possible. It wasn’t as if there was anyone to miss him. I looked into his background; he was orphaned as a child, you know – car crash – and in the absence of any close relatives prepared to step up to the crease, he was made a Ward of Court. His parents’ estate was put in Trust to pay for his education. He seems to have lived a fairly quiet life at Cambridge; no close friends, no hobbies or activities apart from the aforementioned singing.”
“God!” John exclaimed, honestly shocked. “What a start in life!”
“Indeed,” Sherlock rumbled.
John’s eyes suddenly widened. “Sherlock,” he said in a strained voice, “didn’t Oakley, or whoever he is, give you a flash drive with some information on it?”
“That is correct,” Sherlock replied, still typing.
“Well, don’t you think that might possibly be – a problem?” John ventured.
Sherlock paused and turned to face his companion. “John,” he began gently, “I am not an idiot and I have been Mycroft’s brother for long enough to have a highly developed nose for anything suspicious. Of course I swept it for any kind of transmitter as soon as I got it, then I ran it though a decrypting program I had specially modified to weed out any tiny Trojans Mycroft might choose to send my way at any time. When nothing came up, I got really suspicious and put every single document through the wringer: absolutely nothing.” Sherlock looked positively angry about it.
“Well, that’s… good. Isn’t it?” John hazarded.
“To you, possibly,” Sherlock responded, without looking up, “but it was a total waste of my time; time I could have used more profitably. The contents were just as useless. Oh, the stuff was all genuine for sure, but there was no new information there and it was so heavily encrypted that it took me far longer than it would normally to analyse.”
Sherlock stood up and thrust a hand in his hair. “It’s all so much window dressing!” he said heatedly. “That’s why Oakley turned up out of the blue; he meant me to waste my time, it was another delaying tactic.”
“Why didn’t he just shop you to the police, then?” John demanded.
Sherlock shook his head. “If I were to make an educated guess, I would say that’s because he’s not totally sure I haven’t managed to suborn Lestrade in some way,” he replied, “and to be honest, that’s my contingency plan if the Yard manages to catch up with us at any time. I think Lestrade could be depended upon to at least listen, which might put a cat among the carefully preserved pigeons.”
Sherlock turned to John. “It’s quite difficult to get a senior police officer reassigned, even if you’re attached to the Home Office,” he said, “and that’s a very good reason to adjust your tactics.”
John frowned. “Have you taken a look at Oakley’s contemporaries at Cambridge?” he asked.
Sherlock snorted. “Of course I have!” he responded. “I’ve scarcely been doing anything but that for the past two hours. I’ve got nowhere.”
“Have you looked at his hobbies?” John persisted.
Sherlock turned to look at John. “What are you suggesting?” he said, his voice deepening.
John shrugged, refusing to be intimidated. “What about the choir he depped in?” he asked.
“That was the Clare College choir, John,” Sherlock snapped, “and of course I’ve looked into it along with the rest of your pedestrian suggestions.”
“Alright,” John continued with an air of digging himself in deeper, “Oakley stood in occasionally for a fellow undergraduate who was a choral scholar, so I’m guessing he must have been more than competent. Did he do any other singing while he was there? Did he deputise for anyone else in any other choir? Where did he sing when he wasn’t singing at Clare? Was he in a choral society? A voluntary College choir? An operatic society? Was he part of an a cappella group – are there any in Cambridge?”
Sherlock froze then fell upon his laptop once again. John drank his tea and watched as Sherlock devoured the internet then sighed and picked up Jilly Cooper once again.
John propped his eyelids open one last time then gave way.
“Sherlock,” he said.
“Mmm?” was the response, accompanied by a muted clatter of keys.
“I’m going to turn in now,” John said. “I can’t be bothered to sleep on the sofa and the way I’m feeling now, you won’t disturb me if you dance a hornpipe so just let me get in on my side of the bed and you can continue to work all night if you like.”
Sherlock grunted then looked up and continued to touch-type, watching with interest as John dropped his trousers, folded them then started in on his shirt. Sherlock’s fingers slowed then ceased their movement.
John frowned and turned around, suddenly aware of the sudden silence. “What?” he demanded, raising his eyebrows.
Sherlock stared, laptop forgotten; he swallowed on a dry throat. He blinked, suddenly realising he was caught; he ducked his head and resumed typing, but not before John smiled and deliberately shucked his boxers. Sherlock jerked his head away and attacked his keyboard furiously but his ears were a definite shade of red. John slid beneath the covers, turned his back to the light and closed his eyes with a satisfied smile.
Sherlock worked on into the night, hacking into records, chasing leads into the ground and turning the life of Alfred Oakley upside down and inside out; he was stymied at every turn. He had taken apart every member of Clare College Choir, the organist and choirmaster, all Oakley’s fellow academic students, his tutor, the Dons of the college, those who had rooms on the same floor, his bedders, the porters serving during Oakley’s time – nothing.
Sherlock let out an explosive breath and pursed his lips; time to call it a day, probably. He turned to look at John nestled on his side in the middle of the bed, his body outlined by the duvet. A small smile creased Sherlock’s lips and cheek as he imagined putting his hand on John’s flank, caressing it through the thickness of the quilt. He sighed, his body aching just to crawl into the bed and curl up next to John; a couple of hours of sleep might just jolt his brain into a higher gear.
He decided to log into his personal email account before turning in. This would take some little time and there was a real risk of discovery, but he had let it go for a couple of days now and there was always the possibility of something untoward…
Sherlock frowned at a familiar email address marked with an unfamiliar High Importance flag. He read through the text rapidly, his face firstly showing puzzlement which then melted into an almost comical bewilderment. He brought his hands up to his cheeks with an odd, squeezed sound then leaned his face heavily against his fingers, his breath hitching. He remained in this position for several minutes and when he finally let his hands fall back, they were wet.
Sherlock sat upright with visible effort. What to do now? He gave a mental shrug. There was nothing else he could do but carry on; nothing else possible until this mess was cleared up. He swiped at his damp face with his fingers as he reread the email, then he closed his eyes and consciously put its contents in a mental file marked “Pending” and closed it carefully.
Scene: Baker Street, the living room of his flat. Reaching out for Debrett and opening it; folding the Pending file over and over again into a smaller and smaller shape then cramming it into the hollow space in the cut out pages; closing the book with difficulty and replacing it on the shelf.
Sherlock opened his eyes, turned once again to look at the man sleeping in his bed and knew without a shadow of a doubt that there was no question of a blessed unconsciousness of his own tonight. He swivelled back to his computer and prepared to try again.
“John!” It was a whisper but one that was designed to carry across three counties.
“John – wake up!”
“Nnnnn…” John buried his head in the pillow and tried to tune Sherlock out. Sherlock put his mouth close to John’s ear.
“I’ve solved it!” he said, totally failing to moderate the volume. “I’ve found him – Alfred Oakley. I know who he is!”
John raised his head and blinked blearily at Sherlock. “Really?” he said groggily, “Look – can this wait till morning?”
Sherlock blinked. “It is morning, John,” he said.
John struggled onto his back. “It’s…” he looked at his watch, “fucking four am, Sherlock! Some of us mere mortals need at least a few hours of decent shuteye each night – can’t it keep till I’m functional?”
Sherlock frowned mightily. “No it can’t,” he protested, “I’ve been up all night trying to get the provenance on this and now you’re going to listen to me.”
John turned over and blinked through goo-encrusted eyes. “Go on then,” he said, his voice rough with sleep.
Sherlock grinned wolfishly. “Alfred Oakley,” he announced with glee, “is in fact Ronald Adair.”
John waited for more but Sherlock merely looked at him expectantly. John sat up, running a hand over his face and sighed. “Sherlock,” he managed, “who in hell is Ronald Adair?”
Sherlock’s face assumed its familiar “you are too stupid to live” frown, but the strands of memory were already beginning to come together in John’s mind – television and newspaper coverage of the return of Sherlock Holmes, multiple arrests in the small hours of the morning throughout Europe, arranged to coincide exactly, Colonel Sebastian Moran being dragged out of a penthouse suite in Paris for immediate deportation to England to face, amongst other prosecutions, several charges of murder including that of fellow criminal, Ronald Adair…
As Sherlock opened his mouth to express his impatience, John held up a quelling hand. “I remember now. But he’s dead,” he protested. “Moran’s doing time for it.”
Sherlock shook his head. “Sebastian Moran has been locked up for crimes much more serious than the murder of a fellow criminal,” he replied, “and at any rate, he went along with a plea bargain and admitted to everything they threw at him, except Adair’s murder. He always maintained he never touched the man or the brakes of his car.”
“And yet Adair turned up dead?” John queried.
Sherlock scratched his head. “Not exactly,” he replied. “If you remember, Adair died, rather boringly, in a road smash in Italy. The incident involved an HGV vehicle, an Audi TT and a remote mountainous coastal road overlooking the Mediterranean; Adair was in the Audi. According to witness statements, the car swerved to avoid the lorry, broke through the barrier at well over 100mph and plunged five hundred feet into the ocean. It was salvaged several days later with no sign of Adair’s body. However, the car was registered to him and several witnesses reported him as driving it at the time. The statement of the HGV driver seemed to imply brake failure, however the Audi had been serviced the previous week and the Prosecution produced documents verifying its mechanical health. Several witnesses testified to having heard Moran threaten to kill Adair by fixing his car. The two had a disagreement over the proceeds of an insider trading scam that Moriarty pulled, I don’t know if you recall…”
“I remember it,” John put in quickly. “I don’t remember that Moriarty was ever blamed for it, though.”
Sherlock shrugged. “Mycroft saw to it that he wasn’t,” he said, “for various reasons of his own that he saw as good at the time.”
“Okay,” John massaged his temples with the finger and thumb of his left hand. “So you reckon that Moran wasn’t guilty of Adair’s murder because Adair wasn’t actually in the car when it went up, yes?”
“That’s right,” said Sherlock.
John nodded. “So Adair allowed his old identity to go up with the Audi and simply slipped into Oakley’s shoes, landing a top civil service job working for Mycroft… Sherlock, I’m sorry but this just doesn’t add up. Mycroft doesn’t employ people off the street, for god’s sake!”
“Actually, that’s just what he does do on occasion,” Sherlock replied with dry humour, “but, however, not in this case. John, Adair didn’t pick up the Oakley persona, he was Oakley all along; he was running his real identity alongside. As Adair, he was very careful to avoid being photographed and always made strenuous efforts to do everything remotely. To all intents and purposes, Oakley was his real persona and Adair was the false one.”
“So how are you going to pin it on him?” John demanded. “Come to think of it, how can you be sure you’re right?”
“John, I am always right,” Sherlock said loftily, “and besides, I followed your suggestion and tracked Oakley’s singing career in Cambridge. He was quite busy: he was a member of the G&S society and regularly attended CUMS Chorus, but it was his habit of singing Evensong with the choir of Trinity Hall College and eating dinner with them in the Refectory afterwards that struck a chord, if you’ll pardon the expression. I did a little digging on his fellow choristers at Trinity Hall and discovered that one Ronald Adair studied history as an undergraduate at that college and is listed as singing bass in the College Choir for two years.”
John scratched his head. “It’s not conclusive, is it?” he replied.
Sherlock huffed. “Well, no,” he admitted, “but it’s too much of a coincidence otherwise.”
“I agree,” John replied, “but Sherlock, unless you can produce evidence such as a photograph of Ronald Adair at the time he was reckoned to have been part of Moriarty’s network and match it up to Oakley, I’m afraid you’re not going to convince anyone at Whitehall, especially not your brother.”
“I’m not even going to try,” Sherlock said, shutting down the laptop and closing the lid. He grinned at John.
“I think it’s time to weigh anchor, old boy,” he said.
Despite appearances, narrow boats are really very easy to manoeuvre, even through narrow channels and between other, larger boats. Sherlock gave a small, private smile as he remembered Kristie’s merciless tutelage in the past, largely centred around narrow boat etiquette with regard to other craft and canal users. Sherlock was, of course, supremely uninterested in this latter study – on the water, as in life, other people existed merely to serve – but at mid-morning in the Kingsland Basin as he started the Madrigal’s diesel engine running and listened to the smoothness of a recent overhaul, he reflected that courtesy might just gain them precious time before they were noticed and stopped.
The hatch on Kristie’s boat opened at the sound and she came aboard Madrigal frowning.
“What’s up?” she demanded, “Progress?”
“Of a sort,” Sherlock replied; he turned his head. “John, where are you?” he shouted into the cabin.
“We’re about to take a little trip,” Sherlock informed Kristie, returning the throttle to tickover. He turned the revs down and faced her.
“This will take a little while,” Sherlock said, “Maybe two or three days, but Madrigal will return here so keep the mooring free for us.”
Kristie looked into his face and frowned. “What about you?” she said quietly. “Will you be returning?”
Sherlock’s eyes slid away from her face.
At that moment, John’s head appeared in the hatch. He climbed up, grinning and bearing two steaming mugs. “What?” he demanded looking between the two serious faces. He passed one mug to Sherlock and took a sip from the other, nodding as he did so at Kristie. “Cuppa?” he asked. She shook her head without smiling.
Sherlock tried out the tiller. “The electronics?” he asked, looking at John over his shoulder.
John smiled and opened his hand. In it nestled three devices about the size and shape of a 10p coin along with a fourth much smaller item resembling a button battery. “In the drink?” he asked.
Sherlock shook his head. “I want them to keep broadcasting for a while,” he said. He took the bugs from John and picked up Kristie’s slack hand, dropping the four tiny devices onto her palm and closing her fingers around them.
“I’m sure you’ll find somewhere, ah, entertaining to stow these,” Sherlock told her with a grin and turned back to the tiller.
John smiled in agreement, rested his mug on the deck and turned to Kristie, taking her hand. "Thanks," he said sincerely, "for everything. You're a lifesaver."
Kristie gripped John’s hand; her eyes were shining. “Take care,” she said in a low voice, “and look after that man of yours.”
John nodded seriously. Sherlock gave no sign he had heard but his cheeks flushed slightly in the wind. Kristie stepped away from him, gave a wave that turned into a salute and jumped off the deck back onto the waterside, her pace fast and deliberate. Sherlock watched her go and his face was grave.
John reached into his pocket and offered an opened packet of Rich Tea. Sherlock shook his head and nodded towards the stern benches. “It’s probably going to rain,” he said, “so dig out something water-resistant; there’s some gear stowed under there. Oh, and help me cast off, will you? Stern rope first.”
John rummaged through the benches for a waterproof, thrust a similar one at Sherlock and jumped onto the waterside to loosen the ropes. Once John was back on board, Sherlock took the tiller and carefully moved the stern of the Madrigal away from the bank, pivoted to bring the bow round then engaged the throttle and carefully threaded his way past the other moored boats until he left the basin, sailing out into the Regent’s Canal. Kristie’s boat remained still and dark; Sherlock’s eyes lingered on its bright paint disappearing into the distance as he turned the corner.
The journey was not a long one, Sherlock thought, but with only John as crew, the seven locks they would have to negotiate could slow them down.
John came onto the stern deck and passed Sherlock a sandwich and a coffee, smile wide enough to split his face. He sighed contentedly and slurped his coffee. “This,” he announced, “is fantastic; it’s years since I’ve been on a narrow boat. We used to holiday on the Norfolk Broads as kids; Harry whinged the whole time, but I loved it.”
And I love you, Sherlock found himself thinking to his own shocked surprise as they shared an intimate but oddly carefree look. The sentiment simultaneously delighted and appalled him but beneath it all was a strange conviction that he already knew that and had known it for months.
And it was hard not to relax just that little bit, to pretend for a moment that they were indeed on a holiday together, particularly when John leaped ashore, windlass in hand, at the first lock and grinned fiercely at Sherlock, clearly enjoying himself hugely.
It was almost impossible to believe that by the end of the day, they could both be dead.
The Madrigal proceeded along the Regent’s Canal at a brisk pace, taking bridges and locks in her stride, until she arrived at the busy Limehouse Basin.
“What now?” asked John, standing behind Sherlock on the stern deck as they glided their way between vessels much larger and more expensive than their own, some moored, some making their way into the Grand Union Canal. Sherlock, however, made for the Thames.
“Are you really going to do what I think you’re going to do?” John demanded, trepidation oozing out of him.
Sherlock made a jerky motion with his head. “Get my mobile,” he said.
“Where is it?” John responded.
“Front left trouser pocket,” Sherlock told him, eyes on the horizon.
“Are you joking?” John protested. “Come on, I’m not your slave. You’ve already tried that one…”
John’s objection tailed away at the quirked eyebrow and slight smirk on Sherlock’s face, even though his eyes were fixed on the horizon.
“You’re kidding me!” he said, eyes wide. “You mean even then you were…?”
Sherlock shrugged. “Who knows?” he replied. “Now, will you either get my phone for me or take the tiller while I do it?”
John moved forward. “I’ll take the tiller, thanks,” he replied. “No sense in getting you distracted.” But the tips of his ears were red once again; Sherlock thought it was a good look on him.
“We don’t have a VHF radio license,” Sherlock said, calling up a note from his Organiser and switching on the radio. “However, Anthea, acting on Mycroft’s behalf, left me a note, along with the micro SD, containing an authorisation code. It should get us where we want to be.”
At that moment, Sherlock raised the harbour authorities on the radio and barked an incomprehensible string of numbers and letters into the microphone. There was an acknowledgement through a tinny little speaker that sounded rather like a police walkie-talkie.
“There we go,” announced Sherlock, adjusting the tiller. “Westminster, here we come.” He pocketed his mobile.
“Are we actually allowed to do that?” John queried.
Sherlock shrugged. “Probably not,” he replied, “so make sure you have breath enough to run once we get there.”
John looked slightly alarmed so Sherlock leaned over to bump his shoulder. They shared a grin and John waved at a passing launch full of schoolchildren.
Mooring at Westminster Millennium Pier was at once far simpler and far more complicated than Sherlock had anticipated. True, there was a berth waiting for them, almost as if to order, and the Madrigal slid into it like a hand into a glove.
There was also a welcoming party which boarded immediately by way of the bow doors and advanced through the companionway with a silenced pistol at the ready; a welcoming party of one.
“I guessed you might choose to try to throw me off the scent this way,” he said. His smile over the barrel of the gun was unpleasant.
“Sherlock,” John said uneasily, “I recognise him from the pictures…”
“That is unsurprising, John,” Sherlock interrupted staring at the gun. His eyes flicked to the man’s face.
“John, meet the man responsible for your kidnapping and my witch hunt,” Sherlock said, “Mr Ronald Adair, Whitehall mandarin and my brother’s right hand man.”
Sherlock’s tone was ironic but the man in front of him didn’t even flinch at the use of the name; the gun remained steady.
“Congratulations,” Adair replied with a thin smile, “I knew it wouldn’t take you long once you’d realised the direction you had to take.”
“You should never have set foot on the Madrigal the first time,” Sherlock told him. “If I hadn’t seen you then, it would have taken me much longer to work it out.”
Adair shook his head. “There was no other option,” he replied. “After all, it wasn’t exactly a mission I could entrust to someone else; I needed to be there in person to install the listening devices. A pity you arrived so promptly, but it hardly matters; you may have found the transmitter in the living compartment but you still missed the one on the hull.”
Sherlock and John looked at each other; Adair laughed. “So it was all for nothing,” he said. “All the subterfuge, the pretending you hadn’t found my bug, the surgery on your leg, Mr Holmes.” Adair shook his head. “All in vain – such a shame, particularly as we knew where you were all along.”
“Another delaying tactic, I suppose?” Sherlock replied sourly.
Adair smiled. “Of course,” he replied, “and how well they worked! You had to call in favours just to stay afloat – it was most entertaining to watch. And the abduction of Doctor Watson was the absolute coup de grace. Clearly his health and wellbeing come very high in your list of priorities, Mr Holmes; never once did you consider that his kidnapping might be a red herring.”
"I couldn’t afford the possibility,” Sherlock replied dispassionately, “and I can easily divide my attention between several different problems concurrently.”
"Indeed you can; my compliments.” Adair levelled the gun. “And now, Mr Holmes, I think you need to come with me."
"And if I refuse?” Sherlock demanded coldly.
The other man shrugged. “I would rather keep you alive,” he said, “but make no mistake, I will kill you if you put so much as a toe out of line. Your future hangs in the balance, Mr Holmes. Your usefulness as a bargaining counter currently outweighs your potential as a threat, but that situation could change very quickly.”
Sherlock felt something raw and savage stir deep in his chest. He was too surprised at its intensity to maintain his habitual sang froid and Adair noticed, smiling ironically. He shook his head.
“No,” he said, eyebrows raised in polite amusement. “Despite what you are thinking, we truly weren’t responsible for that, Mr Holmes, I assure you.”
“Oh, really!” Sherlock sneered, curling his lip in disgust.
“No,” Adair said firmly, gravely.
"So just collateral damage then?” Sherlock spat. He shook his head. “Don’t bother to think up an answer; it’s not worth the trouble for me to listen to it.”
“Take care, Mr Holmes,” Adair’s eyes glittered dangerously; he gestured with the pistol. “If you make yourself annoying enough, we may decide that we can live with your death.”
Sherlock rolled his eyes and turned away, folding his arms. John was frowning, flicking his eyes between the two men in confusion.
“About this one, however,” Adair continued, jerking the pistol towards where John stood uncertainly, “I have no doubts. Regretfully, he has outlived his usefulness; unfortunate but inevitable, really.”
Adair shifted the barrel of the gun and fired once, hitting John squarely in the chest at point-blank range. The dull thud of the retort sounded no more threatening than a fist to a punchbag, but John was thrown backwards, twisting in mid-air to fall on his side in the middle of the floor. He lay unmoving, his face turned away.
“John!” shouted Sherlock, springing toward him and falling to his knees.
“Back!” Adair snapped, whipping the barrel of the gun round and pointing it at Sherlock’s head.
Sherlock froze and held up his hands. “At least let me see how bad it is!” he spat.
Adair shook his head. “No point,” he replied indifferently, “You have to understand, Mr Holmes, I don’t want you to give him emergency first aid or try to keep his heart going, useless though both of these activities would be, I assure you; after all, I trained at Bisley. No, I want him to die; it is necessary that he does.”
Adair allowed himself a smile. “I know what he meant to you,” he continued, “Oh, believe me I do! Even though I didn’t manage to bug the bedroom on the Madrigal, I would have to be completely blind not to realise the strength of your attachment. That’s why we had him kidnapped in the first place, of course. I admit, I hadn’t realised your friendship had taken that particular turn, but it only makes this situation that much more advantageous to us – and your current plight that much more pitiable.”
Adair laughed in a strangely genial manner. “Things have progressed far enough that I now no longer have to worry too much about keeping you alive,” he said, “Personally, I’m not fussy whether you live through this or not, but I want you taken out of the game one way or another, and your grief over John Watson’s death will achieve what the endless hounding of the past few weeks could not. Get back!”
Adair brought the gun up sharply as Sherlock made a low noise in his throat and stood his fists clenched at his sides as if ready to go for Adair’s neck.
“Down, now!” Adair ordered, gesturing with the pistol. Sherlock mastered his rage barely and raised his hands in surrender.
“Better,” said Adair. “Now, come with me, nice and easy. Just get onto the quayside and stay there without moving, hands nice and relaxed at your sides where I can see them. Be very sure that if you so much as twitch in the wrong direction, it will be the last thing you do. I have never been much for idle threats, Mr Holmes.”
There really was no choice, so Sherlock did as he was told, even though every step away from the Madrigal and John’s lifeless body tore at his entrails. He believed without question that if he refused to obey, Adair would shoot him where he stood, even in broad daylight. Sherlock had no illusions about his status as a wanted criminal and how Adair, or Oakley, would be hailed as a hero if he was obliged to shoot. Explaining away the gun might be a touch more difficult but…
John, his brain supplied helplessly, are you already dead, or is your life still seeping away on the Madrigal’s deck? Sherlock gritted his teeth at the rawness of it. I barely know what you feel like… No, this really isn’t going to help. I’ll never know it now…
Sherlock grunted in abrupt physical pain as his thoughts were rudely interrupted; Adair jammed the barrel of the gun hard into his kidney. “Get in the car,” he snapped.
Sherlock groaned quietly and reached for the door handle of a discreet-looking Ford parked almost on the wharf.
“Slide across into the passenger seat,” Adair instructed. Sherlock obeyed, manoeuvring his long legs awkwardly over the gear lever and handbrake. Adair manoeuvred himself into the driver’s seat, the gun still trained on Sherlock, and for the first time Sherlock realised that the man was in fact acting alone.
Adair spotted the moment Sherlock came to this conclusion and gave a wry smile. “Don’t make the mistake of thinking that this gives you some kind of an edge,” he said, “We’re not going very far – a mile or so. I can keep my eye on you and on the traffic for that long at least, but just to make sure I think I’ll take out a little insurance. Here!”
Adair reached under the dash without moving his eyes and brought out a pair of handcuffs. He tossed them at Sherlock.
“Fasten one cuff round your left wrist,” he told him, still holding the gun steady. Sherlock obeyed, clicking the lock.
“Now thread the cuff… What are you doing?” Adair’s voice betrayed its first hint of uncertainty.
“Handcuffing myself,” Sherlock replied, “just as you asked.” There was a sharp snap as the second lock closed. He looked up with guileless eyes.
A trace of irritation rippled across Adair’s face, gone in a flash.
“I would have been happier with the chain through the grab handle,” he said.
Sherlock shrugged mutely and offered his wrists. Adair’s eyes shifted then he evidently decided to make the best of it. He gestured with the gun.
“Hold onto the handle – with both hands,” he commanded. “Need I tell you not to move them? Do I have to spell out what I will do if you don’t obey?”
“Certainly not,” Sherlock replied, obediently grasping the handle. “I wouldn’t dream of being uncooperative.”
Sherlock did not move for the whole of the short journey. Having come to the conclusion that to take any kind of action while Adair was driving in the morass that was Central London traffic would be tantamount to suicide, Sherlock elected to wait it out.
John was beyond his help now, Sherlock realised; all he could do was endeavour to stay alive long enough to wreak vengeance in whatever manner seemed most fitting. Getting himself heroically slaughtered would achieve none of this. Sherlock gathered up his shock, paralysis, numbness and incipient sorrow and forced them into a small, dense bundle. He composed himself as best he could under the circumstances and sent his thoughts downward, inward, into his Mind Palace.
Scene: Bare tiled floor, mud-stained; dirt-encrusted rugby boots and crumpled blue and white socks littering the floor; painted walls; faint sounds of adolescent boys shouting at one another through the hiss of shower spray; row upon row of lockers; reach for one and push the bundle into it; it is slippery – force it in, never mind how much it hurts. Turn the key, ignore the way it screams, cries for release.
Scene: Walk away, out of the door into a corridor that quickly becomes an aisle of trees. The air is warm and balmy although it is clearly late in the evening. Dark, dark… somewhere leafy, summery, (not winter, the ground has to be soft, not spring there needs to be foliage for cover). A much younger Adair stands thigh deep in a trench, throws the spade up and onto the ground, vaults out of it. Rolls a heavy, canvas-covered bundle carefully until it falls over the side – no, Oakley would have been killed in situ, no cover necessary – stands and regards the trench for a moment before seizing the spade and filling it in. Murderer, murderer, double murderer…
…John falling, twisting, all in slow-motion – cutcutcut, paste it back later, don’t want to lose anything of John, nothing, but can’t deal with this now.
Push the bundle back into the locker, its sobbing cuts deep.
Scene: traditional-style office, massive oak desk with a blotter, Adair leaning close into Mycroft as they peruse a document. The two heads turn at the same time and their hair brushes together. They share a smile. Adair standing up to take handwritten notes in a small book – Mycroft would approve, would approve more if Adair used his cuff; the perfect assistant.
Scene: Adair driving the car, eyes shifting towards his breast pocket; cuff keys.
Scene: The silenced pistol circling, jabbing, one round spent, into John… cutcutcut
Scene: Oakley, port wine stained face, smiling shyly at Adair, of course I will, I’d do anything, you know that.
Scene: Firing range at Bisley, Adair in ear defenders firing off perfect score after perfect score. Don’t mess with me, I know what I’m doing, only one round spent, spent into John – no, cutcutcut.
Scene: John bleeding out onto the Madrigal’s deck – cutcutcut, don’t want to think of this, not now, not ever.
Sherlock’s eyes snapped open as the car drew into an underground car park. He kept his hands and arms still as Adair cruised the car into a space and parked it.
Adair turned towards him and gestured, still with the pistol.
“Out,” he said succinctly. Sherlock paused and narrowed his eyes as if concentrating.
Adair frowned. “I said…” he began.
“I heard what you said,” Sherlock interrupted; he leaned back in the seat and regarded his adversary. “You’re very calm.”
Adair blinked. “I'm sorry?” he replied.
Sherlock smiled mirthlessly. “I said you’re calm,” he repeated, “in control; composed. For someone who has just killed a man for no good reason, you are remarkably unruffled.”
Adair jerked the pistol once again. “Just get out of the car,” he reiterated.
Sherlock took his cuffed hands carefully down from the grab-handle and settled them on his lap. He didn’t move.
“Was it like this the first time, I wonder?” Sherlock said, musingly, “Or was Oakley not your first time? Perhaps you managed a bit of life-taking while you were at school, Ronald? Oakley went to Eton, but you were at Winchester, weren’t you? I confess, my online research turned up nothing much untoward during your years at the school, but we all know how things get hushed up, don’t we? Say all you want about newspapers, attendance records and school magazines, nothing replaces talking to an eye-witness, even if it’s only by email. My sibling and I both went to Harrow, but some of our mutual acquaintances are Old Wykehamists.”
Adair narrowed his eyes. “What are you talking about?” he demanded.
Sherlock raised his eyebrows. “Surely you can’t have forgotten?” he said in surprise. “Why, it was the talk of the school for the whole year. The Hon Bertie Leveson-Gibb, poor little thing; thirteen years old, found floating face down in the pool with no one any the wiser how he got there. Coroner’s report said it was a tragic accident, but everyone knew that Bertie was an ace swimmer; he was slated for the next Olympic trials.”
Adair’s face remained motionless but his hand tightened on the gun.
Sherlock ignored the unconscious movement and continued. “Annoyed you, did he?” he asked, “Or were you simply jealous? History has it that you were less than gracious when he wiped the floor with you in House Sports.”
Adair stared. “How do you…?” he began, then shook his head with a rueful laugh. “You’re good,” he said, “Really; just not good enough. Now, get out of the car!” This time the pistol was menacing.
Sherlock seemed not to notice. “We could talk about Oakley,” he went on blithely, “No? A pity because I always feel that confession is good for the soul and also because, interestingly, there are some parallels between the two cases.”
Sherlock looked straight into the barrel of Adair’s gun and beamed. “It’s always good when a deduction falls into place,” he said, “and this one became as clear as a bell once I realised that Oakley was a far better singer than you, Ronald.
“Oakley was curiously unambitious,” Sherlock continued, as though they were discussing the cricket score over tea at Fortnums. “His unfortunate facial pigmentation and his tragic early bereavements affected his confidence. You met as fellow basses in Trinity Hall Chapel Choir and rapidly became friends, dining together, studying and researching together, attending functions together.”
Sherlock met Adair’s furious eyes with a speculative look. “Shy and retiring by nature, Oakley had never had a close friend before,” he said mildly enough. “You were his first lover, weren’t you, Ronald? He was completely untouched and innocent, his natural reticence and his facial disfigurement having put off members of both sexes equally. He fell for you hook, line and sinker – he couldn’t believe his luck. Same sex relationships had always been rife at Cambridge, but they weren’t yet universally accepted or even tolerated. You were both very discreet but his clandestine relationship with you gave him the self-confidence to explore his performing abilities. Oakley was a very competent choral singer but he started to audition for leading roles in opera and operetta – and getting some of them.”
Sherlock paused to gather his thoughts.
Adair gestured with the pistol. “Go on then,” he said roughly, “I must admit, I’m dying to hear the end of this little fairy-tale.”
Sherlock bowed his head gravely. “You should have been glad for him, but of course that would presuppose that this was a normal relationship and that you were a normal man. Neither is the case. I think that, without the resentment you clearly felt for his musical success, Oakley would not have met the ignominious fate he did quite so soon. But a psychopath is born not made and it is clear, at least to me, that there was no likely scenario in which Oakley could have survived once he had taken up with you. You were his death sentence, Adair.
“You decided to murder him when you realised he had been approached by MI5,” Sherlock continued. “The musical success was one thing, but for you yourself to have been passed over while staid, boring old Oakley was going to swan straight into a lucrative research post… Well, it was the last straw; you decided to act.”
Sherlock locked eyes with Adair once again. “You had to time it right,” he said, “It had to be after Graduation, but also before MI5 called him for interview, anything else would have been too risky. As it happened, he got the call before the actual Graduation Ceremony, but you managed to convince him to cry off. What did you do to make him fail to turn up at his own Graduation, Ronald? Offer to take him on a romantic weekend in Paris? He would have done anything at all for you, wouldn’t he?”
The question was rhetorical but Adair was nodding, his eyes hooded and far away.
“Yes,” he replied, “Freddie was one of the world’s innocents, someone who life would always leave untouched; unstained. He followed me without question that night. I’d told him some rot about making love in the forest under the stars; he fell for it immediately. I hired a car…” He stopped talking.
“You took him to some woods on the outskirts of Cambridge,” Sherlock continued into the silence, “You hit him over the back of his neck with a spade with which you then dug a trench, rolled him into it as he had fallen, and filled it in again. Did you take the trouble to ascertain whether he was actually dead when you buried him?”
Adair flinched and his eyes widened. Sherlock brought his cuffed hands up under the pistol and jerked sharply. Adair fired, the shot going wide and into the dash. Sherlock brought his knee up under Adair’s jaw, aware that the move would unbalance him, but banking on stunning his opponent first. Adair screamed as his teeth were driven through his tongue. Sherlock knocked the gun out of the man’s suddenly nerveless hands and caught it, fumbling slightly with two hands. He rammed it against Adair’s ribs and gestured with his head.
“Cuff keys,” he barked. Adair moaned and reached for his jacket pocket.
Sherlock leaned hard on the gun and shook his head. “Breast pocket, Adair,” he grated, “don’t try to trick me. You know who I am; it doesn’t work.”
Adair hissed through his teeth and brought his arm up preparatory for a heavy blow to the side of Sherlock’s head.
Sherlock blocked the move and trained the gun on Adair once again. “I said cuff keys, Adair,” he told him in a low voice.
Adair gave a roar of rage and launched himself out of the driver seat. Sherlock was ready with a booted foot at his chest, shoving him back hard against the driver door and holding him there. Adair was breathing heavily.
Sherlock observed the man over the barrel of the gun. “You are a murderer,” he said conversationally. “Your victims were innocent people who had done you no harm. I am certain that the two about whom I have some information are only the tip of a very large iceberg. To have pulled the wool over my brother’s eyes was no mean feat – I congratulate you. You are very clever, cunning and extremely dangerous. Too dangerous, I’m afraid.”
“And I killed your friend and lover, Sherlock Holmes, let’s not forget that,” Adair wheezed under the pressure of Sherlock’s boot.
Sherlock nodded; his expression did not change. “Yes,” he replied evenly, “let’s not.”
Sherlock carefully fired the pistol three times in succession into Adair’s upper body, watching without discernible reaction as the man jerked convulsively and the light ebbed slowly from his eyes. Sherlock checked Adair’s carotid for a pulse and, finding none, lowered the pistol and engaged the safety. He let out a sudden outbreath which he abruptly sucked in again when he observed blood from Adair’s wounds flowing rather too near to the sleeve of his jacket; no sense in unnecessary cleaning bills.
Sherlock fished the cuff keys from the pocket just above Adair’s shattered chest and quickly dispensed with his shackles. He made a thorough check of the car, its contents and its late occupant before pocketing the pistol and getting out. He left the keys in the ignition and Adair where he had died. There was little point in worrying about either, but the tyre iron in the boot might prove an effective tool; he hefted it thoughtfully and decided to keep it.
The parking garage was clean, bare and spotless with a door to some service stairs in the corner. Sherlock knew only too well where they led and wondered what fresh horrors this day had to offer. He was dimly aware that he was possibly in shock. He also knew that he was certainly well past his earlier unquenchable, berserker rage but he suspected that he was now in a rare place indeed; a strange, indifferent no-mans-land, a very long way past the boundaries of insanity.
For as Sherlock Holmes stood in an empty basement, alone and unaided with a dead man behind him and a nightmare ahead, he realised that for the first time in his living memory, his mind was quiet. The inner voices had gone, Sherlock realised, their endless clamour stilled, and in return a glorious silence was fast settling in, a fluidity of thought and action combined that was reminiscent of far off cocaine highs but without the distractions.
This state of mind was a powerful weapon, Sherlock thought; he could use it. Already he could feel adrenaline pumping, energy being forced back into weary muscles, pain receptors cutting out. He no longer knew the meaning of concepts such as hurt, grief, fear and fatigue, or rather he knew their significance but in a cerebral, intellectual manner with nothing visceral to cloud his thinking.
Sherlock glanced towards the service stairs and a floor plan of the house appeared in his mind like a pop-up window, weak spots, likely ambush points and defensible areas outlined in red. He knew he would pay heavily later for this startling lucidity but he was strangely certain that whatever its source, it would carry him through. A picture of John as Sherlock had last seen him, broken and motionless on the deck of the Madrigal, slid into his mind but the inner mentor currently keeping watch over his thoughts only allowed him to ponder long enough to fuel his implacability, spurring him on to action before he could give way to grief.
Sherlock checked the pistol, noting the two rounds left in the magazine, felt in his pocket for the spare he had lifted from Adair’s body and changed them over. He engaged the safety and pocketed the gun again, gripping the tyre iron in one hand; he would kill again if it helped achieve his goal, but wasting ammunition was foolish. He started towards the service stairs.
There really was only one place in the world to hold Mycroft Holmes incommunicado without alerting the whole of the British Secret Service, Sherlock reflected. He had long cautioned his brother about becoming too set in his ways; here was living proof of the dangers. It was all very well creating an impregnable fortress against the world but change a very few variables and your fortress became your prison.
As he set foot inside the service door, Sherlock caught sight of a discreet keypad. His mind ticked over at double speed, reviewing every detail of his recent contacts with Mycroft and, more latterly, with Anthea. He went back over the authorisation code for the VHF radio license and picked out the last four numbers. Entering them on the keypad was the work of a moment and a low-level electrical hum he had been almost unaware of suddenly stopped. Sherlock took the stairs at speed, keeping a careful eye on the skirting for booby traps and the ceiling for cameras and, finding none, stopped at a heavy fire door leading onto the ground floor of Mycroft’s house.
Mycroft’s home was deceptive. On the surface, it was a modest four bedroom Georgian town house in a quiet cul-de-sac off Pall Mall worth, at today’s prices, around £6,000,000. It looked like any other overpriced, exclusive family home, but the basement-level parking with its approach from the Bellairs Club in the next street gave it away as something rather less ordinary. The place was so secure it was almost hermetically sealed; locked up tighter than a drum. The extremely sophisticated CCTV had eyes everywhere and was largely computer operated – nothing would get past this system. There was a small enclosed garden terrace at the rear with six foot high fences angled in to prevent overlooking and a mild electric current running through them to dissuade the curious. This looked like overkill, but the mews behind was a weak spot as it housed the amenities for the Bellairs Club and two other houses in the row.
Sherlock was already on a winning streak; he had managed to penetrate the parking garage, at Ronald Adair's expense. He flexed the arm holding the tyre iron and listened to his inner mentor.
The service stairs terminated suddenly at a blank wall. Sherlock took out his skeleton keys and shone the pencil torch over its surface. After a moment or two, he pressed down on two slightly discoloured areas in the wood and a dull click heralded the give of a narrow door opening. Sherlock stood unmoving for a while, listening for any sign of life beyond the door. On hearing nothing, he cautiously pushed it open a few inches, slid through the gap and closed it silently behind him.
He was in a hallway decorated in traditional style with parquet flooring and Oriental rugs. A couple of exquisite hall tables bore vases of fresh flowers, artfully placed mirrors increased the light coming in through the stained glass above the door and Sherlock froze as he took in the man standing silently with his back to Sherlock, ear glued to a mobile phone.
As Sherlock stared, the man started to speak. “Mmm, mmm,” he said nodding involuntarily. “I know, I know. But Adair was pretty sure he hadn’t worked it out yet.”
Sherlock listened very carefully.
“No, he hasn’t returned – he should have done, he’s running late,” the man continued. “Alright, I’ll go check. I’ll text you if there’s anything to report.” The man hung up and Sherlock brought his tire iron down with precision.
It was easier than Sherlock had anticipated, bludgeoning a man into unconsciousness. Just two blows, one across the shoulder to paralyse the arm and one to the back of the neck to make sure he stayed down.
John smiling. “Just make sure he’s comfortable, Sherlock. There’s no reason to be callous about it – if he’s unconscious he’s no more threat to you than if he’s dead.”
Obediently, Sherlock moved his unconscious adversary into the recovery position and made sure his airways were clear. “He could always wake up, John,” he murmured, cuffing the man with Adair’s handcuffs for good measure.
Sherlock frisked him efficiently, finding and pocketing his mobile phone and relieving him of a wicked-looking little Beretta. He broke open the action, removed the clip, dropped it into a handy draw and replaced the gun.
One down, how many to go?
And that was the real problem, Sherlock reflected as he moved along the hallway as quietly as he could. He was going in blind and his quarry might not even be here. Might not even still be alive…
John frowning. “That kind of talk won’t help you. There’s no point in resisting the inevitable, I’ll grant you, but you’re a long way away from that.”
“You’re dead,” Sherlock muttered soundlessly.
John shrugging. “Been facing up to that one for far too long, mate. Death gets to be not quite a friend but certainly something of an ally in a war zone. To people who are too far gone to be saved, death’s less of a curse, more of a mercy. Makes you sad you couldn’t save ‘em but the alternative could have been far worse.”
“John, what do you want?” Sherlock asked silently. “Why are you here?”
John grinning. “Buggered if I know,” Sherlock could see him very clearly. “after all, it’s your crazy brain, mate. Maybe it’s just decided you need me, who knows? Now, get down to the end of that corridor and check out the kitchen.”
“Yes, John,” muttered Sherlock between his teeth and made for the far end of the hallway.
The kitchen was lit but appeared to be empty until Sherlock noticed the door ajar at the far end; a larder.
“That you, Vince?” came a voice from inside it. Sherlock grunted in a non-committal manner and withdrew his pistol, padding over to the door to push it open with the barrel.
“Want some cold cuts?” the voice said.
Sherlock screwed the silencer into the man’s neck and leaned his mouth close to his ear.
“Not especially,” he replied quietly, “and although I’m not usually the violent type, I’ve been through enough over the past several days to have had more than a sea change. Please do me the courtesy of believing me and don’t make me demonstrate.”
The man froze, a club sandwich halfway to his mouth. Sherlock slipped on the safety, reversed the pistol and hit him hard over the back of the neck with the butt. He supported the man as he slumped, unconscious to the floor.
John peering over his shoulder. “Check his vitals.”
“Shut up,” Sherlock muttered just to see John smile and shifted the man roughly into the recovery position before locating the larder key and turning it in the lock from the outside.
The two remaining reception rooms on the ground floor were empty. Sherlock took a deep, silent breath; there were three more floors. He hoped to find what he was looking for on the first floor but he could not be certain.
The stairs were heavily, deeply carpeted and made no noise as Sherlock stole up them, this time silenced pistol at the ready. He crept around the turn and emerged on the landing, carefully covering both ends before advancing. The place seemed deserted, but he could not be certain he was safe yet. He listened.
The faint sound of some music drifted down the corridor: Elgar’s cello concerto, first movement, Jacqueline du Pré, if he was not mistaken. Sherlock frowned; Mycroft had played the cello as a child before giving it up in favour of world domination. Was this some kind of message?
Sherlock made his way down the landing towards the sound of the music, established the room from which it was issuing and tried the door handle; it opened noiselessly.
Mycroft Holmes was sitting in a leather upholstered armchair in front of an open fire, to all intents and purposes listening carefully to the music. The curtains were open, exposing wide, stained glass windows of exquisite quality. Sherlock knew for a fact that they had been lovingly crafted from bulletproof glass. The room was furnished in traditional style with much polished oak and mahogany and some comfortable upholstered sofas and armchairs. The lighting was subtle and adjusted itself automatically as the natural light faded into evening.
Sherlock lowered his pistol and engaged the safety catch. Mycroft’s head jerked upwards at the click and he shot to his feet, his eyes wide.
“Sherlock!” he exclaimed, and Sherlock had the brief satisfaction of knowing that this was one of the very few times he had genuinely surprised his brother. However, his triumph was short-lived; Mycroft’s face reflected a mixture of murderous anger and real regret.
“You fool!” he thundered. “What in God’s name do you think you’re doing here?”
“Rescuing you, I imagine,” Sherlock replied drily. “Are you seriously trying to tell me, Mycroft, that you are free to leave here? Or that you have been in any way answerable for your own or this country’s affairs for the past fortnight?”
Mycroft was shaking his head; his normally pale complexion was almost white. “Where are the two imbeciles charged with my so-called protection?” he demanded.
“One is out cold on the floor of the hallway,” Sherlock responded, “the other in the pantry. Oh, don’t worry; the first is handcuffed, the other locked in, but it will be some time before either of them wakes.”
“And Adair?” Mycroft stared straight into Sherlock’s eyes.
Try as he might, Sherlock could not hold the gaze. “Dead,” he replied, looking away.
“Accident?” Mycroft asked.
Sherlock raised his head and stared his brother in the face. “No,” he replied shortly.
There was a horribly pregnant silence.
“How could you be so stupid?” Mycroft’s voice was quiet.
Sherlock frowned; he had clearly missed something here. “Just a moment,” he began, “I know that Adair, or Oakley as you knew him, was…”
Mycroft ignored him. “Do you realise what you have done?” he exclaimed; he started to pace the room. “Adair was the centre of this particular web; everything sprang from him, everything returned to him. Without Adair, the whole set up will fracture and become fragmented. We will lose it all only to have it spring up again anew in a few years’ time.”
Sherlock nodded. “So you knew?” he demanded, “About Oakley, I mean?”
“Of course I knew!” Mycroft returned scornfully. “What other possible reason could there be for me to… Sherlock, in my wildest dreams I never imagined that you of all people would allow sentiment to cloud your judgment. This action of yours is not rational; it is reckless in the extreme.”
Sherlock frowned. “Do you mean to tell me you have no plan for this particular contingency, brother?” he asked.
“Of course I do!” Mycroft spat, leaning his hands on his desk, “but that’s not all of it.”
Sherlock narrowed his eyes. “Adair killed John,” he said deadly quiet.
Mycroft stopped pacing and turned to stare at his brother. “I see,” he replied in a level tone.
Sherlock maintained a steady gaze for a moment or two. “I don’t regret it,” he said. “He forced me to leave John bleeding out over the deck of the Madrigal. I hope the bastard’s burning in hell.”
Mycroft’s mouth twisted in a moue of distaste. “I thought you didn’t believe in a higher power, little brother,” he replied.
Sherlock rolled his eyes. “It would be worth it just for that,” he replied. He rummaged in his pockets and threw a Samsung Galaxy smartphone on the desk. “That’s Adair’s,” he said. “It might just contain something useful – that is, if you can actually get someone to decrypt it for you. How much contact with the outside world do you have here, Mycroft?”
“Oh, some,” his brother said vaguely, scooping the phone from the desk and switching it on.
“Yes, but how much?” Sherlock demanded.
“However much I need to fulfil their plans,” Mycroft returned, squinting at the screen. He put it aside with an impatient sigh. “Sherlock,” he said gently, “they have a hold over me far greater than men with guns. Those two were only there to prevent ill-advised rescue attempts, such as you yourself have just pulled off. I’m glad you didn’t kill them, Sherlock; they’re just doing a job and they’ve been decent company if a little, ah, limited in conversation.”
Mycroft sighed again and his face fell into worry lines Sherlock had never seen before; they made him look old. “They have mummy,” he said simply.
Sherlock felt an ice-cold hand clench his stomach.
Sherlock sipped delicately at the Remy Martin Louis XIII cognac Mycroft had sloshed almost carelessly into a Waterford brandy balloon. He sat on the overstuffed sofa, elbows on his knees, deep in thought, John by his side.
John whispering. “Careful, Sherlock, if you relax now, you’ll never get out of that chair.”
“What do you know about it?” Sherlock replied, his lips smothering the words into the brandy.
John shrugging. “I’m part of this, remember? You can’t let go now, you have to keep focussed. Otherwise you’ll have left me to die for nothing. Come on, Sherlock. Get that brain of yours into gear!”
“Shut up,” Sherlock murmured.
“Am I thinking too loudly for you, brother?” Mycroft replied nastily. “It might behove you to imitate my example.”
Sherlock shifted his body wearily, dimly aware of his myriad aches and pains. He thought he might have sustained a wound or two over the night’s adventures but John had whispered in his ear, his own personal guardian angel, and it was all fine.
“You said they have mummy,” Sherlock prompted.
Mycroft flashed a look of pure dislike at his brother. “Yes,” he replied, sipping at his own drink, “and before you ask – no, I have no idea where. That was one of the provisos of keeping her alive.”
“What were the terms?” Sherlock said quietly.
“Pathetically simple,” Mycroft replied bitterly. “Take a sabbatical or she dies. What else could I do?”
“Where was she?” Sherlock asked.
“Meadowsprings,” Mycroft replied, his voice dripping with contempt. “The latest computerised security systems and staffing ratios to rival Guantanamo Bay, yet still they managed to lose one frail, eighty year-old woman with Alzheimer’s and have no idea where she went.”
Sherlock took a sip of his drink, his silence eloquent.
“What was I supposed to do, Sherlock?” Mycroft said quietly. He stared until Sherlock raised his eyes.
“Could I really justify abandoning her?” Mycroft continued in the same tone. “A terrified, confused old lady for whom life was no longer making sense, thrust into a world of violence and intimidation? Would that have been a human response, I wonder?”
“And you didn’t think to contact me?” Sherlock replied in a level tone.
Mycroft breathed out through his nose; it was barely a laugh. “You made your position crystal clear the last time we met,” he said in a hard, brittle tone. “Any and all duties you may have had in that direction had long been discharged, you said.”
Sherlock lowered his eyes and his head, bringing his cognac to his lips to hide the gesture.
“And besides,” Mycroft continued after a pause, “it was pretty much a fait accompli; I was isolated and assured of my impotence first. Only when I started to protest was I informed of the likely consequences of my failure to co-operate.”
Mycroft gave a half-smile. “Over the years,” he said, “Oakley discovered enough about me to know that mummy was a far better hostage than you, little brother.”
Sherlock raised one eyebrow. “Which is, I deduce, one reason why I am still alive,” he replied cryptically. He pursed his lips. “I assume, therefore, that once Tweedledum and Tweedledee fail to check in at the appointed time, you will have another visitor – one of a higher status, yes?”
“Yes,” confirmed Mycroft, “and I believe that event will occur just about…”
There was a discreet knock on the door.
“…now,” Mycroft finished, rising to his feet. “Come!” he called and the door opened noiselessly.
The man who entered seemed at first to be no more than twenty-five or so. However, at a closer inspection, the crow’s feet around his eyes and the sprinkling of grey in his hair spoke of another decade at least. His body language was so graceful as to be almost hypnotic and his hands were elegant with the long, nimble fingers of a pickpocket. Sherlock caught sight of a white scar on the newcomer’s forehead and rose to his feet, his eyes narrowing.
“Mr Holmes, good evening,” the stranger said, advancing into the room. He turned his head and bowed slightly.
“Mr Sherlock Holmes, an honour if not exactly a surprise,” he said ironically.
Sherlock bowed in a slow, slightly exaggerated fashion. “Now, this is something of a revelation,” he admitted. “I have looked forward to making your acquaintance for quite some time, preferably with the bars of a prison cell between us. However, this will do for now. I am delighted to meet you at last, Mr John Clay.”
The man’s smile broadened. “You have heard of me?” he replied without waiting for an answer. “Good, that saves me a great deal of time. However, for the sake of completeness, I should declare that my mentor, the late lamented James Moriarty, bequeathed me two files of detailed information concerning each of you. Files so complete that I really feel I already know both of you; intimately.” He smiled unpleasantly.
“Indeed,” Sherlock replied with interest, “MI5 or CIA?”
Clay shook his head. “Neither, actually,” he replied, “You would be surprised how effective some independent contractors can be these days.”
Sherlock smiled politely and inclined his head. “I assume that you take the credit for masterminding this so-called coup?” he enquired.
“I played my part,” Clay responded carefully.
“With what aim?” Sherlock asked.
Clay shrugged. “General mayhem,” he replied, “continuation of Professor Moriarty’s legacy; my own personal amusement – take your pick. Of course money is also a powerful motive, as is revenge, don’t you think? But only if you have a heart to break in the first place, of course.”
“One of the strongest,” Mycroft agreed, indicating the square brandy decanter. “Cognac, Mr Clay?”
The other man shook his head. “Regretfully, no,” he replied, “despite the fact that this is indeed a legendary bottling.” He shook his head sadly. “My Greek studies at Oxford taught me many useful things but among the most practical was never to consume anything given freely by an enemy. Of course, if you defer to Machiavelli, actually identifying your enemy is often more difficult than avoiding assassination, but the advice still stands nevertheless.”
“As you wish,” Mycroft replaced the stopper.
Clay fixed an eye on Sherlock. “I see you despatched my right hand man, Mr Sherlock Holmes,” he said without preamble.
Sherlock returned the look. “It was necessary,” he replied flatly, “after all, he murdered mine.”
“Ah, yes,” Clay replied, walking languidly around the room, “the redoubtable Doctor Watson. A soldier and a gentleman, I believe, with tastes not entirely dissimilar to your own. A sad loss, don’t you agree?”
Sherlock clenched his fist behind his back hard enough for the nails to draw blood; his face did not move a muscle.
John leaning carefully over his shoulder. “He’s just trying to rattle you. Pay no attention.”
“As, of course, was Ronald Adair,” Clay continued.
Sherlock gave a disbelieving snort; Mycroft aimed a look at his brother that said “don’t poke the tiger” almost in English.
“You disagree?” Clay’s eyebrows were politely raised.
Sherlock twitched an eyebrow. “I think the comparison not exactly apt, yes,” he replied in a level tone.
John frowning. “Take care, Sherlock – remember what you deduced about Oakley/Adair’s private life? About your brother? It’s not beyond the bounds of possibility that Adair was involved with Clay too.”
Sherlock frowned, running a finger over his lower lip.
“Indeed,” Clay continued. “Your moral standards appear to be flexible, Mr Holmes. John Watson and Ronald Adair were killers both by nature and by inclination. The fact that John Watson’s homicidal urges were, until recently, contained within a state sanctioned system is neither here nor there.”
“John Watson was a doctor before he was a soldier,” Sherlock returned stiffly. “His aim was always to preserve life, never to take it unless there was no other option.”
“And the murder of the cab driver, Jeff Hope, was one such instance?” Clay replied, “Even though Hope’s crime was no worse than encouraging you to make a bet, Mr Holmes? Even though the only person threatening your life in that instance was your good self?”
Sherlock’s eyelashes fluttered; he looked away.
John leaning into Sherlock’s shoulder. “I wasn’t a murderer, Sherlock, and you weren’t responsible for the death of a serial killer, merely his identification.”
“I would love to continue this discussion but time, as always, moves on,” Clay said smoothly. He turned to Mycroft. “Mr Holmes, your opposite number in the US has been very unwise, I’m afraid. As a consequence, he is in hospital suffering from severe angina – at least, that’s what has been given out to the world’s press.”
Mycroft closed his eyes briefly. “May I take it that he is no longer alive?” he said in a level tone.
Clay inclined his head. “You may indeed,” he replied. “As a matter of fact, he committed suicide in a very imaginative and ingenious manner. His timing was also rather good.”
“Yes,” Mycroft nodded, “Julian was always something of a hero-type. I imagine you were intending to remove him at a later date, when you had managed to suborn enough members of his department to ensure that his successor would be under your command, yes?”
“Quite so,” Clay nodded, “However, needs must when the Devil drives. Mr Holmes, we require your services. We know who we want to replace him and we need you to engineer the appointment.”
Sherlock watched his brother digest this, could almost see the cogs whirring in his mind.
“And if I refuse?” Mycroft said in a quiet voice.
Clay sighed. “Do we have to go through this again?” he said, a touch of petulance in his tone.
“Humour me,” Mycroft responded implacably.
“Very well,” Clay shifted his feet. “In 2008, Lady Angelique, Lydia Holmes nee Vernet du Coudray was detained under Section 3 of the Mental Health Act 1983 and was cared for in Meadowsprings Park, a very exclusive and expensive facility, until a little over a month ago. She suffers from schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s disease and type 2 diabetes. As a result, although her heart is strong, her general health is frail. Earlier this year, her medical attorneys elected to remove her from Meadowsprings and install her in another facility. Currently, she is receiving good care and is healthy and happy. Of course, as is often the case with very elderly people, she could suddenly deteriorate for no apparent reason.”
Sherlock glanced at Mycroft and watched, fascinated, at a pulse in his brother’s forehead.
“I believe that I am one of her medical attorneys,” Sherlock replied when he could drag his eyes away. “I recall no such action.”
“Do you not?” Clay responded with mock surprise.
“No,” Sherlock confirmed. “Presumably you have notarised copies of the Orders to hand?”
“Indeed,” Clay did not look too pleased at the question.
“Then I would trouble you to look them out for me,” Sherlock continued. “I would be most interested to view them.”
Clay made no answer.
“You understand, Sherlock, why I have done what I have done,” Mycroft said into the silence.
Sherlock nodded. “Indeed, brother, I do,” he replied. “Despite all your political acumen, you are lamentably unused to uncertainty.”
“Whereas you work with it every day, is that so?” Mycroft returned, stung and, unusually for him showing it. He passed a hand through his hair.
Sherlock shook his head. “That is not my meaning,” he replied. “What Mr Clay has done is certainly cunning and well-executed, but it is not logical.”
“Go on, brother,” Mycroft said after a beat or two.
“He claims to have removed mummy from the place she has called home for the past several years,” Sherlock began, “however, he gives you no details of the removal process as proof, nor does he produce documentation to verify that it was even possible.”
Sherlock paused and looked his brother in the eyes. “You once said that caring was not an advantage, Mycroft,” he said in a quieter tone, “and I would fully concur with that sentiment. However, once Pandora’s box has been opened, mythology has it that nothing can ever be the same again.”
Sherlock stopped speaking and waited as though marshalling his thoughts. “I have rather more knowledge about Mummy than you think,” he began again. “I have been receiving regular medical reports from Meadowsprings under an assumed name, of course, ever since she arrived there.”
“Impossible!” protested Clay.
“Sherlock?” Mycroft said uncertainly.
“It is the truth,” Sherlock continued, “and I can confirm that everything Mr Clay has said about her is true, except from the part about actually physically moving her. He fully intended for her to be moved to a private facility under his own control – but she never arrived there.”
“How come?” Mycroft demanded urgently above Clay’s furious protests.
“According to Meadowsprings, she never left,” Sherlock replied composedly.
There was a brief silence for a couple of beats, then Clay stepped menacingly into Sherlock’s personal space. “I don’t know what you think you’re trying to prove,” he snarled, “but the consequences are likely to be far more serious than you imagine, I promise you that.”
“I very much doubt that,” Sherlock replied coldly, “at least, not now.”
Mycroft drew himself up to his full height and glared down at the two men until they fell silent. He gave a curt nod of acknowledgement and then turned to his brother.
“Sherlock,” he began, “I would prefer cast-iron proof but we don’t have time. Give me your word that mummy is safe.”
Sherlock paused only for a beat. “She is safe, Mycroft,” he said, “Believe me, it’s the truth.” The brothers locked eyes for a long moment, and then Mycroft nodded and reached for his computer.
“Hey!” Clay protested. “What do you think you are doing?”
“I have no reason to take orders from you now, Mr Clay,” Mycroft said, rapidly logging in and bringing up his encryption program. He fished a USB lead out of his top drawer and attached it to Adair’s phone.
“There’s nothing you can do to stop us now – nothing!” Clay shouted.
“Perhaps,” Mycroft replied without looking up, “but I think a published list of names – in Whitehall and in both Houses – should have a slowing-down effect, at least in the UK, don’t you think?”
“What are you…? Jesus, is that Adair’s phone?” Clay’s voice rose in pitch, “The idiot! He kept information of that kind on something he carried with him every day?”
“Yes, and I knew about it,” Mycroft answered in a detached tone of voice, “but be fair, Clay; it was heavily encrypted. A pity my software is state of the art – won’t be two ticks now.”
“Stop – right now!” Clay said. Sherlock gave a startled exclamation as he watched Clay grind the muzzle of a derringer into Mycroft’s ear; Mycroft froze and obediently raised his hands from the keyboard.
“Just stand up and move away from the desk,” Clay instructed. Mycroft rose from his chair, hands still in the air, and started to back away very slowly. Clay’s gun circled gently in the air, running between the two Holmes brothers.
“You! Get down on the floor,” Clay snapped at Sherlock, “Now!”
Sherlock paused for a beat then sank to his knees and spread himself out on one of the priceless Chinese rugs, face down.
“Mr Holmes Senior, do the same,” Clay said, regaining some of his composure, “on the other side.”
Mycroft obeyed with a slight shrug.
As Clay slid behind Mycroft’s desk and reached out a hand for the computer, a gunshot rang out through the room, quickly followed by a cry of pain. Clay raised a disbelieving hand to his smashed and bleeding shoulder; the momentum of the shot had slammed him against the far wall. Sherlock lifted his head gingerly and watched in complete bewilderment as a figure he had thought never to see again walked through the door and into the room, holding the beretta Sherlock had captured from the guard in the hallway.
John Watson was dishevelled, torn and dirty with smears of blood over his face and neck, but he was in all other respects a going concern and if he winced a bit when he moved that was only to be expected for a person to whose name Sherlock had already become accustomed to applying the prefix “the late”. Behind him, Kristie peeped nervously around the door jamb.
John trained his pistol on the moaning John Clay and grinned openly at Sherlock. “Thanks for taking the guards out,” he said cheerfully. “No marks for hiding the clip in the hall table though; took me ages to find it.”
“…and that brings us up to date, Inspector,” Sherlock said calmly, leaning back in his chair.
The ashtray in front of him was full to overflowing and Wainright had already sent a PC to the corner shop for another packet. Sherlock smoked in silence for another minute or so before Wainright stirred.
The inspector shifted in his chair and rubbed a hand over his hairline. “That,” he said, “was the most preposterous story I have ever heard in my life.”
Sherlock nodded. “Yes,” he replied equably, “and once my brother can spare the time to remember that I am here, you can be certain that it will remain simply a preposterous story.” He sat back in his chair. “You will have to sign the Official Secrets Act, Inspector,” he continued in an amused tone, “and if any of this should ever leak out, you will find yourself swiftly the subject of a Gagging Order and an early retirement plan.”
“Don’t worry,” the Inspector sighed and put his head in his hands, “I won’t rock the boat. I’m too near the end of my time here to bother.”
“I know,” Sherlock replied, stubbing out his cigarette, “that’s why I told you.” He shrugged. “It passed the time.”
Sherlock’s eyes snapped upwards as footsteps were head in the corridor. “My carriage awaits, I believe,” he remarked, rising from his chair as the door opened.
Mycroft Holmes stood in the corridor, furled umbrella and immaculate pinstripe as always.
“Sherlock,” he said with raised eyebrows. He looked pointedly at the overflowing ashtray. “I see you’ve succumbed again.”
“Mmm,” Sherlock replied, taking his jacket from the back of his chair and shrugging into it. “I think that’s probably the least of it, don’t you?”
Mycroft nodded soberly. “Probably,” he replied, “Ready to go?”
Sherlock gave Mycroft a level stare. “John?” he asked.
Mycroft nodded. “Will follow on once the paperwork on him has been, ah, processed,” he replied, standing aside from the door and gesturing for Sherlock to precede him.
Sherlock strode from the interview room without a backward glance. Mycroft turned to Wainwright with a slight smile.
“Thank you, Inspector,” he said. “You will shortly be returning to your usual bailiwick. Detective Inspector Lestrade has been released from suspension and should be back on duty within a day or so.”
Mycroft nodded to the bewildered man and followed his brother to the front desk.
221B Baker Street was a complete shambles. The combined interference of the Met and MI5’s hazmat team had reduced what had been simply chaotic to almost total ruin. Sherlock stood in the open doorway and surveyed the wreckage expressionlessly. Mycroft came up behind him and peered over his shoulder. He shook his head.
“Dear, dear,” he murmured. “It looks like you’re going to be needing a new place, Sherlock. That’ll be the fourth one in as many years. Seeing as I owe you, little brother, perhaps you would like me to…”
“No,” snapped Sherlock. He strode into the living room, righted the sofa with effort and replaced the cushions. He sat down, fingers curled in the familiar steeple.
Mycroft paused for a moment then picked up a kitchen chair, set it upright and sat on it. “Sherlock,” he began rather more quietly, “why didn’t you tell me? About mummy, I mean.”
Sherlock turned his head slowly. “Tell you?” he said emptily, “tell you that our mother died in the process of being abducted? That her last moments were agitated and confused, surrounded by strangers who were determined to use her as a lever against you and didn’t care what they had to do to achieve that end? That would have helped the situation, would it?”
Sherlock rested his head in his hands and gave a deep sigh. "I learned of her death by email," he said in a low voice. "She suffered a severe stroke during the attempt to relocate her and never regained consciousness. I had to hack into my own account to receive the news - apparently the Senior Manager was at her wits' end trying to track one or other of us down. I suppose the redoubtable Adair was carefully filtering your email the whole time, was he not?"
Mycroft ignored this. “You led me to believe she was still at Meadowsprings,” he protested.
“I said she had never left,” Sherlock returned tartly, “So far, I was telling the truth.”
“And you said she was safe.”
There was a long, uncomfortable pause. Sherlock shifted in his seat.
“I trust the civilised world has returned to what passes as normal in your opinion, Mycroft?” he said dispassionately. “Clay’s machinations were not so far advanced as to be unstoppable?”
“Fortunately not,” Mycroft replied, “There is still a great deal of work yet to do, of course; Clay was only one cog in the machine, albeit a fairly important one in this country. Anthea is a very capable officer and a good stateswoman in her own right but I’m afraid this will have to be a flying visit, Sherlock; I really must return at once. However, I can tell you that the CIA were most interested in the contents of Adair’s phone, as were our own Secret Service of course. There will be a number of high profile arrests both here and across the pond tomorrow morning as a result – keep an eye on the news.”
Sherlock leaned back against the sofa and tried to compose his thoughts sufficiently to enter his Mind Palace. Ingress seemed difficult and sticky – Sherlock pushed at it but could make no headway. He tried to order his thoughts in a more usual manner but they resisted, skittering away and laughing at him. He kept trying to hold on to the elephant in the room, but every time Sherlock approached John, his sudden reappearance and Sherlock’s own feelings when he believed the other man to be dead, his thoughts slid away sideways, aquaplaning on standing water – or was it John’s blood? Mycroft’s? Mummy’s…
Sherlock shook his head and tried again. The light slowing dying in Adair’s eyes as he slumped over the steering wheel… No. The trajectory of John’s small body as he absorbed the impact of Adair’s shot and was flung backwards in a heap like a collapsed puppet… NO. Clay’s shriek of pain as his shoulder exploded in a mass of tissue and bone shards…
Sherlock buried his head in his hands. Clearly, he would have to wait.
Mycroft sighed and pushed himself up from his chair. “The funeral is on Thursday,” he told his brother. “I have sent you the details; no flowers, donations towards Alzheimer’s Research. I trust you will be there?”
Sherlock made no sign of having heard his brother.
“Sherlock,” The furrow between Mycroft’s eyebrows deepened. He moved nearer to the sofa, peering curiously into his brother’s face. “Sherlock!”
Irritation suddenly dropping from his face like snow off a roof, Mycroft reached out a hand to shake his brother’s shoulder and watched as Sherlock tipped over sideways like a felled tree, his body stiff as though in rigor, his eyes wide and expressionless. Mycroft knelt on the floor and put his hands to Sherlock’s face, noting the hugely dilated pupils and the shallow tide of his breath. He gave the fold of skin at Sherlock’s neck a brutal twist, observed the lack of reaction and stood, reaching into his pocket.
“Anthea,” he said in his usual cool, deadpan tone, “ambulance to 221b Baker Street immediately, please. Yes, I’m afraid so,” he continued in answer to a question, “Total collapse, unresponsive to stimuli, tachypnoea, rapid pulse. Make it quick, my dear, won’t you?”
Sherlock woke in stages, groggy, irritable and in considerable pain, to hear angry voices some little distance away.
“No, it is not alright, Mycroft! I can’t believe you took him back to Baker Street, knowing the destruction your people had wreaked on it, and you didn’t even recognise that he was injured! Wouldn’t it have been better to take him to a hotel, or possibly – a mad and crazy idea, I know – even to a hospital? Of course, I realise you had bigger, more important concerns such as the security of the Western World on your mind, but I can’t believe you didn’t even notice…”
“Sherlock was battered, dishevelled, blood-spattered and waving a gun,” protested a second voice, that of his brother. “He admitted to killing Adair and incapacitating two other men, he was in control and moving freely – what was I supposed to think?”
“He had a broken rib – it punctured his lung!”
“I didn’t know that, John!”
There was a pause, and then the second voice continued at a quieter volume.
“The broken rib was courtesy, I surmise, of Adair’s booted foot during their struggle to the death in his car. The adrenaline rush was probably the reason that Sherlock didn’t notice it at the time. But the wound hasn’t been the problem; actually, the broken rib didn’t puncture his lung, John, and there’s been no sign of pneumonial infection…”
“I know most of this – I’ve been sitting in that chair ever since you had me sprung from Scotland Yard, except for the times I’ve been badgering the medical staff for updates.” John was clearly very peeved.
“John, the major problem seems to be total exhaustion and a certain amount of mental withdrawal,” Mycroft continued, unperturbed. “He’s sleeping very deeply at present and the doctors don’t seem to be able to wake him. He’s exhibiting a rather higher number of REM cycles than is to be expected during a normal sleep pattern. There is something of a concern about Locked-In Syndrome – a state where the patient is fully conscious but…”
“Yes, Mycroft, I am a doctor; I have come across the condition once or twice before.”
“Apologies, I was just trying to bring you up to date.”
I think an accurate description of what I have just been through might be “coma” or even perhaps “fugue”, Sherlock wanted to say. In fact, he opened his mouth to do so but all that emerged was a hoarse croak.
“What was that?” John said. Footsteps sounded and a face swam into view.
“Juh…” Sherlock rasped.
John’s face sharpened in focus and he smiled worriedly. “Oh god, you’re awake at last!” he said.
Sherlock tried to sit up and a stifled groan forced itself between his lips.
“Steady,” John said, holding a palm against his chest, “You’ve been injured.”
“How long was I out?” Sherlock managed.
“This is day two,” Mycroft said, stepping into view.
Sherlock rolled his eyes. “I might have known I wouldn’t be allowed to suffer peacefully without your gloating over me,” he said with some of his usual asperity.
Mycroft smiled wearily. “Balance has been restored to the world, little brother,” he said, “and I believe I should extend my most sincere gratitude for all that you did to contribute to that.”
Sherlock coughed painfully. “Yes, well,” he replied awkwardly.
Mycroft nodded. “It’s not often someone gets the better of me,” he said; his expression hardened. “It won’t happen again.”
“Good thing too,” Sherlock grumbled. “I’m not partial to hospitals – next time you can do your own dirty work. Now go away. Haven’t you got an election to rig or a dictator to topple?”
Mycroft smiled, genuinely this time, and patted his brother on the shoulder. “Dinner at my club for you and Doctor Watson, 8pm next Tuesday,” he said, his glance including John too. “I’ll send a car.” It wasn’t a request.
“Ah, yes, thank you; very nice,” John replied, smiling in return, “Looking forward to it.”
Mycroft left the room swinging his umbrella as he went.
“I’m not going to die just to please you, you know,” Sherlock shouted as best he could. The effort set him to coughing painfully again.
“Of course you’re not going to die!” John exclaimed, shaking his head.
Sherlock grimaced. “I know,” he replied, “but ‘over my dead body’ is an overused phrase where my brother is concerned.”
John sighed. “Holmeses,” he said almost affectionately.
Sherlock fixed him with a glare. “You, on the other hand,” he grumbled, “are a positive deus ex machina.”
John shrugged deprecatingly. “When you embark upon a potentially life-threatening adventure,” he said, “and are told by your incredibly annoying, know-it-all flatmate to put on some waterproofs, and you just happen to find some Kevlar mixed in with the Peter Storms, well it would be kicking a gift horse in the teeth not to take advantage, wouldn’t it?”
“Indeed,” Sherlock said gravely, “Never pass up the opportunity of body armour.”
“Where did it come from?” John asked curiously, “I mean, in the beginning? Does it actually belong to you?”
Sherlock gave a half-smile. “You see?” he replied. “That is precisely why I stowed it on the Madrigal; if I’d brought it back to Baker Street, you’d have asked awkward questions like that.”
“No seriously, Sherlock,” John said, “where did you get it?”
Sherlock looked shifty. “I might have – borrowed it,” he said carefully.
“From Lestrade, I suppose,” John replied with a long-suffering air.
“Kind of,” Sherlock said, “although I guess that Sally Donovan was probably more annoyed, seeing as it was assigned to her.”
John laughed. Sherlock tilted his head to take a good look at him. John had showered and shaved and his clothes were clean. In fact on the whole, he looked hale and healthy and if he occasionally winced when he moved sharply…
“Where are you hurt?” Sherlock demanded. “You’re stiff.” Immediately he said it, Sherlock wished he had put it differently. He looked away and the faintest flush appeared across his cheekbones.
John gave him a level look. “Being hit at point-blank range by a silenced Sig Sauer P226 will do that,” he replied steadily. “Relax, Sherlock; it’s just bruising. Mind you, I had no problem pretending I was dead. Frankly, I was convinced I was for a while.”
“How did you find me?” Sherlock asked.
“Ah,” John sat down on the side of the bed in direct contravention of hospital regulations. “That was quite interesting, actually. I was flailing around on the floor like a drowning fish when Kristie showed up. Apparently, the Kingsland lot had a board meeting last night. They reckoned that whatever you were up to, you seemed to think you wouldn’t survive it and they weren’t prepared to let that happen without a fight.”
John smiled and shook his head. “You really do manage to attract the most unlikely champions, Sherlock,” he said admiringly, “despite your total lack of charm. Anyway, Kristie and Dawn followed us on Dawn’s boat. They saw us moor at Westminster Pier and they tied up on the bank a bit further down. Dawn caught sight of Adair boarding the Madrigal with a gun so she and Kristie disembarked and legged it over to us. When Adair came out with you and got in his car, Dawn took the license plate and relayed it to Jonathan by phone while Kristie boarded Madrigal and tried to rouse me. I looked in a pretty bad way, apparently, but once she got the Kevlar unfastened, she realised that I wasn’t badly hurt. It really aches now though.”
John reflexively rubbed his chest and winced. “Anyway,” he continued, “the River Police impounded Dawn’s boat for sailing on the Thames without a VHF license – you might want to give Mycroft the heads up about that, Sherlock – so Dawn stayed behind to take the rap for that. Kristie called Jonathan again to see if he’d managed to find out anything about the car. Apparently, Jonathan is in touch with someone called Shiney?” John’s voice gave a questioning upward tilt but Sherlock didn’t bite.
“Okay, this Shiney somehow managed to trace Adair’s car back to Mycroft’s address,” John continued, “Kristie and I followed and once we got there, it was pretty much all over bar the shouting.”
Sherlock smiled; the homeless network is far more efficient than MI5.
“I must say, your brother doesn’t exactly slum it, does he?” John remarked after a moment. “That house of his is really something.”
“Being the British Government has its perks,” Sherlock replied, “Go on, John; don’t leave the story half told.”
Sherlock didn’t really require John to tell him about the mopping up; it was all either self-evident or history. No, he didn’t need to know at all. What he did need was the reassurance of John’s warmth and humour, his solid physical presence and his comforting normality. Sherlock was content just to hear him talk, to watch him laugh, to be certain in mind as well as body that John was unmistakeably there, rather than lying on the deck of a boat with his life ebbing away. Sherlock felt his eyelids close once again and after a brief, half-hearted struggle, surrendered into a natural sleep, aware of John’s hand closing briefly around his fingertips.
Sherlock remained in hospital undergoing a number of unnecessary and in some cases embarrassing tests until the following evening. John spent the intervening time trying to put 221B to rights, reassuring a tremulous Mrs Hudson that Sherlock was indeed alive and well despite rumours to the contrary (again) and having a very awkward tea with Mycroft in Speedy’s.
At 7.52pm precisely, Sherlock summoned John to the hospital and promptly discharged himself, stalking out of reception and into the waiting taxi without a word of greeting. John followed, sheepishly thanking the medical staff and acknowledging their gratitude for Sherlock’s removal.
In the taxi, Sherlock launched a frenzied attack on his phone, watching John struggle with himself out of the corner of his eye for a minute or two.
Sherlock heaved a long-suffering sigh. “Go on, then,” he said without looking up from his texting.
“What?” replied John, starting guiltily.
Sherlock gave him an old-fashioned look. “You know you can’t hide it from me,” he said, “so it’s pointless to try. I can smell him at fifty paces – Mycroft.” Sherlock looked down at his phone again. “Say it,” he told John firmly, “and get it over with.”
John schooled his face into a calm expression. “Alright then,” he replied. He turned his body until he was facing his flatmate. “I’m very sorry about your mother, Sherlock,” he said quietly.
“There, you see,” Sherlock replied after a short silence. “That wasn’t so difficult, was it?”
John stared, his mouth slightly open; Sherlock looked up and raised his eyebrows. He frowned slightly. “Not good?” he ventured.
John shook his head. “Absolutely not good, Sherlock,” he replied with some heat. “I thought it was Mycroft who was supposed to be the Ice Man?”
Sherlock’s texting showed no variation in its speed. “Mycroft’s heart is not made of ice, John,” he replied composedly, “it is one hundred per cent titanium.”
John glared and drew himself as upright as possible and opened his mouth, but his flatmate forestalled him.
“Oh, for goodness sake!” Sherlock exclaimed, abandoning his messaging and turning to face John. “What?” he said loudly, “You think my brother suddenly developed the human emotions of love and nurturing because he was close to selling out over a threat to the life of a blood relative? Oh, come on, John! Even you know Mycroft better than that!”
The taxi pulled in to the kerb, its engine idling; Sherlock reached for the door handle and vaulted out, leaving John to pay as usual.
Hearing the front door bang, Mrs Hudson came out of 221A, clearly having been listening out for Sherlock’s return. Sherlock ignored her, taking the stairs two at a time, ignoring John’s admonitions and Mrs Hudson’s querulous questions alike. The two looked at each other helplessly; John patted their landlady on the shoulder.
“He’s okay,” he said, “it’s just been a – difficult time.”
Mrs Hudson drew herself up to her full height. “It certainly has!” she exclaimed. “What with the hazmat team, the endless searches and the police questioning – I’d be within my rights to evict the both of you!”
“You certainly would, Mrs Hudson,” John replied seriously, “but just imagine all the fun you’d miss out on if you did.”
John winced as he ran up the stairs; never in his wildest dreams had he imagined that Mrs Hudson knew language like that.
Sherlock was sitting texting on the sofa, still in his coat. When John entered the room, he favoured him with a long look then put his phone aside.
“You need to go down and see her, Sherlock,” John said, hanging his jacket. “She was worried.”
Sherlock raised his head and shifted until he could plant his elbows on his thighs, resting his chin in one hand.
“I am not a psychopath, John,” Sherlock began, enunciating the words slowly and carefully.
“I know you’re not…” John began but Sherlock overrode him.
“I was assessed at the age of sixteen,” he continued, “by several psychiatrists, all eminent in their fields. They all agreed that I showed sociopathic tendencies and a marked social juvenility. They recommended keeping me on at Eton for the full two years of sixth form, even though I had long outgrown everything the school could supply academically, in the hope that I would develop the necessary maturity to cope with life at Oxford. I’m sure you learned all about my condition in your second year medical training – poor impulse control, grandiose sense of self, pathological lying, incapacity for love, lack of remorse, need for stimulation, etc. etc. blah, blah, blah.”
Sherlock took a deep breath and placed his palms on his knees. “Mycroft, however, is not a sociopath,” he said.
“Well, no,” John responded, slightly confused, “he’s not like you…”
“Mycroft,” Sherlock interrupted crisply, “is a psychopath.”
There was a pregnant, rather helpless silence. John pursed his lips then let a rather surprised breath escape in a rush. “I’ll make some tea,” he said and escaped to the kitchen.
“Mummy burned all of Mycroft’s early psych reports, wisely I think.”
Sherlock sat on the sofa, elbows on his knees, gazing sightlessly into the cheerless grate. His tea steamed gently on the coffee table in front of him. He glanced round at John. “Can you imagine what sharing a childhood with such a person was like?” he asked.
John sipped his tea and gave it some thought. “Well, no,” he replied awkwardly. “I mean, Harry was bad enough but…”
“Nothing like a brother, older by seven years, whose hobbies included waterboarding and vivisection, you mean? No, I can assure you it wouldn’t have been.” Sherlock shuddered slightly and rubbed his palms up and down his upper arms, seemingly unaware that he was doing it.
“Sherlock, I…” John began, extending a hand.
"Don’t!" Sherlock spat the word out like an unpleasant taste; John withdrew his hand hastily.
“It took Mycroft a number of years to gain a measure of control over his more, ah, antisocial impulses,” Sherlock continued after a while. “Eventually when I was five, father insisted on sending me away to prep school for my own protection – acting very much against mummy’s express wishes, I might add.” Sherlock sighed. “It was already too late.”
John sat and sipped his tea in silence. Sherlock had learned to interpret some of John’s body language in the years they had been at Baker Street, but it did not take a genius to tell that, by his very stillness, John’s generous heart was breaking for the young Sherlock.
Sherlock put his hands behind his head. “The psychiatric reports on my brother aged thirteen,” he continued, “declared him to be an extremely intelligent, emotionally mature, well-balanced, charming individual, something of a control freak but amusing and likeable with a rather adult sense of humour.”
Sherlock gave a huff of humourless laughter. “They all missed the fact that Mycroft is a consummate actor,” he continued without smiling. “His ambition from the first was control and power; politics furnished him with a stage that spanned the whole world upon which to exercise his thespian talents. He remains to this day an actor playing a role, perfectly controlled and ruthlessly disciplined.”
Sherlock turned to John. “Mycroft had no choice but to allow Adair to blackmail him over mummy,” he said quietly. “Any other course of action would have cracked his carefully constructed façade wide open and set loose his inner psychopath. And I shudder to contemplate the consequences should that event ever occur.”
John stirred, sighed and placed his empty mug on the table. His face, when Sherlock looked up at it, was pale and suddenly old.
“This is the man who is the British Government,” John murmured, shaking his head.
“And although it pains me to admit it,” Sherlock replied briskly, “he appears to be making a mostly good job of it. It would be the easiest thing in the world, John, to blame my brother for everything, but the truth is that he is a moderating influence on an organisation I can only describe as terrifyingly totalitarian. His handicaps are severe indeed, but they at least make him flawlessly logical.”
John nodded slowly. He looked at Sherlock and opened his mouth to speak; Sherlock held up a hand before John could coax his vocal chords into action.
“Don’t say it,” he told him wearily.
John closed his mouth then opened it again. “What are you talking about?” he demanded.
“You were about to commiserate with me over my unbelievably horrific childhood,” Sherlock told him calmly. “You were also about to ask me never to give you the details because your dreams are vivid enough as it is and you would rather not have a further source of night terrors. Oh, don’t worry!” Sherlock shook his head and smiled grimly. “Those things, along with a number of others, including the shot you took in the chest from Adair’s gun – all these, John, are locked up, squirrelled away in their own separate compartments.” He tapped his head. “They’re secured and safeguarded, carefully neutralised until I can take them out and tackle them, one at a time.”
Sherlock smiled ruefully. “Living with Mycroft for any length of time,” he said, “made it necessary for me develop the technique for my own survival and also for the sake of my sanity.”
“This is what happens when you Delete something, then?” John asked curiously.
“To a large extent, yes,” Sherlock replied. His mouth twisted in a humourless smile. “Unfortunately, I seem to lack the specialist software necessary to wipe the data sector of my brain – I suppose that would be the amygdala. In most cases, these things are just being stored temporarily until I find the time to deal with them. However, there are some things that cannot be changed and will always remain despite any and all efforts to the contrary. Those are the things I have to work to keep at bay.”
There was an awkward silence, and then Sherlock seemed to shake himself out of his introspection and sat upright, searching around for his phone. “Quite apart from anything else,” he remarked, patting his pockets, “Mycroft did have a serious vested interest in mummy continuing to live, you know, even in the parlous state she had reached, for as many years as possible.”
“Oh?” John raised his eyebrows.
“Yes,” Sherlock replied conversationally. “You see, according to the terms of her Will, I inherit most of her money; some kind of last ditch attempt to apologise for her share in my ghastly childhood, I suppose – I took little notice of it at the time, I confess.”
John waited for the rest of it but Sherlock had found his phone and had resumed his texting.
“I never imagined Mycroft to be particularly mercenary,” John ventured. “I mean, he seems to be pretty wealthy as things stand. Why would he want more?”
“Want more?” Sherlock left off texting to frown at John, then his expression cleared. “Oh, no, John, he doesn’t intend to contest her will or anything – how very vulgar! He just wanted to put off the dreadful day when I had complete financial independence rather than just a modicum; ever the control freak.”
Sherlock grinned evilly. “Mycroft also inherits the family seat in Warwickshire,” he added, “which will put a considerable cramp in his style and make him even busier.”
John frowned. “Why?” he asked.
Sherlock just smiled. “Look it up on the net,” he replied, turning back to his phone. “I’ll email you the link, and then you’ll understand – if you have a couple of free hours to spend reading the site, that is.” He narrowed his eyes at something on his phone then sat back with a bark of laughter.
“A case, John,” Sherlock exclaimed. “Lestrade is back in harness and needs help already…”
Sherlock trailed off, absorbed; John finished his cold tea in silence, and then repaired to the kitchen to do something about dinner. Food occupied only a fraction of his milling thoughts, however, and it was almost a relief when Sherlock barrelled in and swept him off to a crime scene before he had really made a start.
Sherlock was lying on a gurney, half covered with a white sheet, staring up at the ceiling of the morgue in Bart’s. His nails were long knives, sharp and pointed, gleaming at the edges, and they sliced at his skin, separating the epidermis from the fibrous membrane, teasing it carefully away from the deeper layers. The muscles of his arms, the sinews and the tendons were exposed, peeling back to reveal white bone, and when he looked down, he could see his hands deep inside his own abdomen. He watched himself remove his alimentary organs one by one, shiny and new-looking with no blood or digestive fluids to contaminate them. As he looked up, the ceiling became reflective, showing his body, slit from throat to groin and pinned out like a lab rat on a dissecting tray.
“Sherlock, wake up, you’re dreaming. Wake up!”
Sherlock opened his eyes but he could still see the horrific image. He sat bolt upright and abruptly the world around him coalesced into the four familiar walls of his bedroom.
How excruciatingly embarrassing. Sherlock was aware of John’s hand on his shoulder; he exhaled forcibly and cleared his throat.
“This,” Sherlock began, “would be one very good argument against sharing a bed.”
John frowned. “What?” he replied.
Sherlock made an encompassing gesture. “With your PTSD and my night terrors,” he said patiently, “we’d probably kill each other within a week.”
John blinked mystified and shook his head. “I wasn’t trying anything on,” he replied, “I was just going to the bathroom when I heard… Look, are you alright?”
Sherlock sighed and leaned his chin on his knees. He turned his head a little and looked at John out of the corners of his eyes. “Apparently not,” he replied truthfully.
John nodded as if he had known this all along. Sherlock gritted his teeth; in his past experience, the next step would always be the pressure to talk; to strip himself naked and vulnerable, to Restore all the Deleted items, no matter whether he was willing or able to deal with them right now.
“Okay,” John said, rising from where he had been sitting on Sherlock’s mattress. “I’m guessing you won’t sleep any more now. Get your dressing gown – I’ll put the kettle on.”
Sherlock made no move while John crossed the room to the door. Hand on the doorknob, John turned back.
“Oh, and in case you’re worried,” he said, “I did at least learn something from my endless therapy sessions, despite their generally useless nature, and that was not to question someone with PTSD too invasively because they generally don’t like it.”
Sherlock looked at him quizzically; John smiled.
“Just tea, Sherlock,” he replied softly and left the room.
The brew was almost dark enough when Sherlock materialised, standing in the doorway watching his flatmate stir the pot. Sherlock focussed on the patch of skin at the back of John’s neck where the hair first grew out from a new haircut. Before he knew it, Sherlock had crossed the kitchen and was leaning gently against the other man, pressing his mouth against that maddening small area. A tight little tremor went through John’s body at the contact and his hand faltered in its stirring.
“You know,” John’s tone was conversational although he swallowed once before speaking, “this is the first time you’ve touched me like… well, like that since our time on the Madrigal.”
Sherlock closed his eyes and inhaled the particular scent that said “John” to his lizard brain; something made up of sweat, soap and John’s washing powder all overlaid with a faint spiciness which Sherlock’s brain had learned very quickly to associate with the surface of John’s skin under his mouth.
“You know this is a bad idea, don’t you?” Sherlock said, his eyes still closed. He felt rather than saw John’s shrug.
“So was invading Afghanistan,” John replied. He leaned back into Sherlock’s lips.
“Yes, but that wasn’t just you.”
Sherlock’s mouth curved into a reminiscent smile. He leaned his chin on John’s shoulder and ran his palms down John’s upper arms. He nodded at John’s hand, still mechanically stirring.
“I think that’s probably sufficiently drawn by now, don’t you?” Sherlock said. John did not look up but Sherlock could feel his face heat as he set the spoon aside and poured the tea through a strainer into two mugs.
Sherlock frowned. “You never usually use a pot,” he remarked.
John shrugged, picking up the mugs and turning to offer one to Sherlock. “It gave me a little more time to hide,” he replied with devastating honesty. He took a sip of tea.
Sherlock looked at the floor, shaking his head reflexively. “I love you,” he said in a low, hopeless voice.
“Yes,” John replied, pushing the tea into Sherlock’s hands, “I thought you probably did.”
Sherlock took the mug, his face twisting in annoyance. “This is intolerable,” he muttered, “I should be able to control my urges, not be a prisoner of my own genitalia, unable to think or function without copulation, like some kind of a… a…”
“…normal human being?” John suggested, eyebrows raised over the rim of his mug. “Most people get like that at some stage in their lives, Sherlock.”
“How do they function?” Sherlock raged.
John shrugged gently. “It doesn’t last for long,” he replied, “A few weeks; months if you’re really persistent. After that, it settles down into something a bit more – comfortable.”
“Months?” Sherlock protested, his expression almost comically horror-struck. John couldn’t suppress a chuckle.
“Actually, most people are sorry when the gilt wears off the gingerbread,” he replied casually.
“I can’t cope with the distraction, John,” Sherlock said despairingly. “The work comes first, it has to!”
“And I wouldn’t have it any other way,” John replied calmly. “Look, Sherlock; I have a vocation too, despite the fact that you drag me away from it fifty per cent of the time.”
John placed his mug on the kitchen table and put his hands carefully on Sherlock’s shoulders. He ducked his head to try to make eye contact.
“I liked what happened on the boat,” he said firmly, “and I’d like to try it again. If you don’t want to share a bed with me all the time – if you think it will be too difficult – then we don’t have to. We don’t have to live in each other’s pockets either, although with the nature of your work we probably will to a certain extent.”
John smiled and put his hands either side of Sherlock’s face to look him in the eyes.
“Oh, and for the record,” he said, “I love you too, in case you were wondering.”
Sherlock shook his head and a weak smirk chased itself over his mouth. “I wasn’t wondering,” he replied, “It was obvious.”
“Yeah,” John replied, leaning their foreheads together, “’Course it was.”