The jokes about people who skived off on holiday for a month, while claiming to be working, stopped when the usually equable Lestrade tore a strip off the third joker on his team.
Detective Chief Superintendent Robinson managed a sour smile as Lestrade entered his office. "How was it?"
"Wet and windy. But taking a few cold case files was useful - enough to reopen a couple of them. They were a bright bunch."
"You can justify the cost?"
When, Lestrade wondered tiredly, had all it come down to money. "I can."
Robinson nodded. "You do the paperwork, I'll sign it off."
"Thanks, sir. I understand things have been a busy while I've been away."
"Oh yeah. Not helped by your sergeant, who's had another of his convenient 'bad' backs - but as he conned his doctor into giving him a certificate we can't prove otherwise. Your stand-in, Sergeant Dakers, is paid for until Sunday - I wish we had a hope of keeping her but there's no room in the budget."
"And DCI Ferris?" asked Lestrade.
"He's out of danger but his leg's a mess. Likely to be on sick-leave for some months. At least they got the bastard. Three times over the limit. Can you cover for him?"
Lestrade made the affirmative noises expected of him. He would have shopped his sergeant in a heartbeat but if he got rid of him now Sally Donovan was still too junior to have a chance at the post, whereas by next year, when Warrington might be granted early retirement, she should have a good chance, particularly if he got Robinson on his side.
Because three of his cases were coming up for trial, Lestrade spent the best part of two days being prepped by a barrister from the Crown Prosecution Service, who didn't look old enough to shave. But he seemed on the ball, so Lestrade hoped for the best. It wasn't until Thursday that he had time to ask about the investigation into the missing homeless, which he had set up before he went away.
"There are definitely missing homeless people, we just can't be certain how many," reported Detective Constable Donovan, without much enthusiasm because missing homeless weren't career makers.
"Rough guess?" Lestrade demanded impatiently.
Donovan gave him a cautious look. "Fourteen that we're pretty confident of, though we've only got street names for five of them. We're still trying to verify another eleven. Three more body parts have turned up."
"From the first body?"
"No, three new, different individuals. From what the pathologist said it's likely they were all homeless."
"Wonderful," sighed Lestrade. "Do we know anything about where, or when these people disappeared?"
"Only that they have. And that they haven't gone home to relatives, if they had any, or turned up in a hospital or mortuary."
"Were the body parts on our patch?"
"No, the spread is from Barnes up to the East India Docks basin. But the local MITs have promised to give us every assistance."
"What have forensics thrown up about the parts?" Lestrade asked, drawing in two other Detective Constables and their tech head to the review, while making a mental note to call on Sherlock when he had time.
It was a while before Sherlock came to the door and the reason wasn't difficult to spot. Lestrade's mouth tightened.
"If I came in and found drugs on you, or on the premises, I would have to arrest you. There's a case. A big one. Huge. But you're not clean, so I can't use you. While I stay out here go and flush your stash. Get rid of any gear. I'll be back in four days to get a urine sample. Fail it and I won't try again. Clear?"
Sherlock swayed where he stood. "I just - "
"I know," said Lestrade, the hard edge to his voice easing to exasperation. "Honest to God, Sherlock. You only had to wait three days."
"Then the next four days are going to be even worse. Go and flush your stash. We've got fourteen homeless confirmed missing, and eleven more possibles. No idea what happened to them, or where. We're also got three more body parts from three different bodies."
The change in Sherlock would have been comical in different circumstances.
"Wait! Don't go! I'll do it. Then you must tell me everything."
Lestrade told himself he could have held out if Sherlock hadn't looked so damn hopeful.
"Okay. We'll talk over a meal. Which you'll eat without whining or argument."
"Depends what we're having," said Sherlock, his eyes narrowing.
"I swear you're worse than a damn kid. I noticed a Thai restaurant at the end of the road. You're paying."
"Why?" said Sherlock indignantly.
"Because you're putting me to considerable inconvenience - and we haven't even started to work together. Shower after you've got rid of the stuff, I can smell you from here."
"That's just the - "
"I don't want to know," Lestrade said hastily.
"Experiment. I was going to say experiment," said Sherlock indignantly. "You'd better come in."
"Not until the place is clean."
"Well, at least turn away while I - "
"Don't tell me any more. Sweet - I'm a serving police officer who'd rather eat than arrest you. But don't push your luck."
"Then you can go and buy some tea, milk and biscuits."
Lestrade held out his hand.
Sherlock viewed it with faint puzzlement. "What?"
"Money," said Lestrade patiently. "I'm not bank-rolling your habit, or anything else."
"It works on Mycroft," said Sherlock philosophically.
Lestrade willed himself not to react to the name. He hadn't sunk that low. "You can pay me when I get back," he said and made his escape.
Mycroft spent the rest of March and part of April bouncing around the globe like a demented shuttlecock. There were some mornings when he woke unable for a moment to remember in which language he was supposed to think today.
But it had the advantage that he had little free time in which to regret any hasty decisions he may have made about his private life.
He had placed Gregory under Level Five surveillance, telling himself it was a prudent precaution while he was working with Sherlock. He left it to Anthea to read the reports. If Gregory was under threat, his people would step in, otherwise Gregory's life was his own.
Sherlock had been emphatic about wanting to cut the strings and for once Mycroft was trying to do just that. After some soul-searching, he had dropped Sherlock's surveillance down to Level Five as well - enough to ensure Sherlock wouldn't be able to vanish again, which was all he needed to know. Of course, that didn't stop him wanting to know everything but he would just have to deal with that, along with everything else.
Mycroft was surprised by how much he missed his brother's company. The week on the island had been the first time he had spent any appreciable time with Sherlock since he'd left home for Pembroke College. Inevitably they had parted badly but that was par for the course. Perhaps one day he would be able to find the correct balance with his brother. One day.
He didn't think about Gregory Lestrade at all. Or, at least when he did, he stopped himself immediately. He had no patience with mawkish pining, least of all his own.
Lestrade knew his team were wondering what the hell was wrong with him. He was wondering that himself. He had learnt to control his temper decades ago but now it flared up at the oddest times.
On the rare occasions when he was home - inevitably alone - and the loneliness got too much for him he had persuaded himself to get a life, but with a conspicuous lack of success.
He'd been monogamous for too long; everything had changed, not least himself, and he felt old and out of joint. He crossed clubs off his list after he'd ended up arresting his date for supplying. Straight pubs were depressing, the women either too young and drunk, or too needy. He felt slightly more relaxed at gay pubs and managed a couple of fumbling encounters. But unrealistic or not, he wanted more than a blow-job in an alley stinking of piss and stale beer. None of the men who spared him a glance made him laugh, quite apart from the fact that none of them were Mycroft.
He promised himself that he would try again. In the meantime his right hand was in danger of suffering from repetitive strain injury. He would have to take a leaf out of his sergeant's book and try getting a few weeks off until it healed, he thought mordantly.
It was a long difficult summer and autumn, even discounting the strains which arose from 'working' with Sherlock, which presented a whole different set of challenges. Lestrade's murder team took his arrival pretty well, all things considered - except for Sally, who called him a freak on a good day. It didn't help that Sherlock barely registered her existence, even when she was berating him.
His private life a waste land, Lestrade lost track of the off-duty hours he spent with Sherlock on the streets, trying to establish the identities of the missing. Several seemed to have vanished around the Euston area. Five more body parts turned up - two belonging to existing victims. The only thing both had in common were a lot of tattoos, and the fact the severed limbs had been kept in deep freeze for some time before being dropped into the Thames.
The more ghoulish on the team had taken to calling them 'the Cannibal killings', speculating that some body parts were being eaten - but not within hearing of Lestrade, who seemed to have lost his sense of humour while he was away.
The missing people they had managed to identify ranged in age from mid-teens to early sixties, both genders and all variations of skin tone. Most had an alcohol or drug problem - or both. There were teenage runaways from foster care, the parental home and care homes, ex-service personnel, divorced men whose lives had spun into decline once they were out of the family home and abused women.
It seemed to Lestrade that the more they found out, the less they knew - least of all what had become of the disparate bunch. Some would have been easy prey, others he would have pegged as predators. But with the murder rate in London up thirteen per cent, the homeless cases couldn't be given the man-power and time they deserved.
As time went on and Lestrade failed to hear anything about the investigation Mycroft had promised into the Archive at Hendon, he bit the bullet and tried to get in touch with him. He used the only means he had, Mycroft's 'office' at the Department of Transport.
"I'm sorry, sir. Mr Holmes is unavailable. Can anyone else assist you?" said his secretary.
Lestrade admired the way she injected a note of interest into her voice. "No. Can you pass an urgent message to him?"
"Of course, sir."
It belatedly occurred to Lestrade that he couldn't leave a direct message, let alone the one he wanted to. "Please tell him that Greg wondered if the Sacred Cut has been healed. It is urgent."
"Yes, sir. May I take your number?"
Anthea called him within an hour. "Mr Holmes sends his apologies for not being available. I've been running the investigation. As yet all the information is negative. As you'll appreciate, because of the need for discretion, it's taking longer than originally anticipated."
Lestrade cross-examined her for ten minutes before he was satisfied that she knew what she was doing and that she wasn't hiding anything from him. At least, he was pretty sure she wasn't. The investigation had certainly been discreet, he hadn't heard a whisper.
"I'd appreciate a monthly update. From you," he said pointedly. Fuck 'Mr Holmes' and his unavailability.
"Of course, sir."
The Exhibits Officer, a lugubrious individual at the best of times, informed Lestrade that a piece of evidence shown in photographs of the waste ground had never been logged in, despite the Scene of Crime Officer, a new bloke, insisting he'd bagged it.
It had been windy yesterday, remembered Lestrade, experience a sinking feeling. But he'd put money on the fact there was nothing 'natural' about the missing piece of paper. Although it was difficult to see how a child's scrawl in purple crayon saying 'GUESS WHO?' could solve the cases of any of the missing homeless, who were still turning up a piece at a time. Five minutes he'd taken his eyes off Sherlock. Five sodding minutes.
"Get back out there at first light tomorrow. See if the wind moved it," muttered Lestrade as he tried to flex away the tension locking his neck and shoulders.
"I couldn't be expected to pick up every piece of paper at once," the Scene of Crime Officer whined.
Lestrade left him to the tender mercies of the Exhibits Officer and, in no sweet mood, went off to find Sherlock at his flat.
He listened to Sherlock's protestations of innocence unmoved. "You've got one chance to return the missing piece of evidence, otherwise you're off the case and off the Murder Investigation Team. Well?"
"For the fifth time, I didn't take it!" Sherlock protested, all outraged virtue.
"Which is what you said last time and the time before that and lo and behold, you had the evidence all along. Right, that's it. God knows I've warned you enough times about scene-of-crime protocol. You're off any crime scene of mine. And if I find proof you've been tampering with evidence, I'll see to it that you're prosecuted. Are we clear?"
"You aren't listening to me," yelled Sherlock in frustration, a tinge of colour on his pale cheeks.
"No," said Lestrade in a quiet, coldly unfamiliar voice, "you're not listening to me. We're done."
He walked out, his cold hands punched in the pockets of his black overcoat. The waste ground was almost an acre of often difficult terrain, used as a tip by half the local population. Enthusiasm amongst senior officers for a case involving so many missing homeless people when they hadn't even got reliable identification for over half of them was lukewarm at best, without risking the budget on overtime. But he needed the Scene of Crime Officers back out there, he'd worry about paying for them later.
Sherlock stood at the grimy window, staring down into the street, where Lestrade was hurrying out of view. Lestrade had been difficult to deal with ever since they got back from the island but he'd never been this unreasonable. It was typical that Mycroft should have taken him at his word for once, just when he could have made himself useful.
Two hours later Sherlock conceded defeat and, for the first time in his adult life, he called his brother for help, only to learn from a calm-voiced assistant that Mycroft would be unavailable for at least twelve hours.
Lestrade was off on Sunday and left Donovan to oversee the Scene of Crime Officers at the waste ground. After a few hours sleep, he went off to Waitrose, shoved on a load of washing and, too restless to settle and hating the emptiness of his flat, pulled on his overcoat. The weather was foul, it had been drizzling for days, and now there was a strong north-east wind blowing to add to the joy, but anything was preferable to his own company.
He emerged onto the street just after eleven and instantly reminded himself to find time to buy a scarf and gloves. He slowed when, farther up the street, he saw a sleek black car slotting into a tight parking space. With a ridiculous sense of anticipation, he speeded up.
A familiar figure left the car at his approach. As Mycroft unfolded, Lestrade saw he held a furled umbrella in one hand. Though with the strength of the wind being what it was, he'd probably take off like Mary Poppins if he tried to protect himself from the drizzle which was misting everything with moisture.
That formality killed every unrealistic hope but his lurch of disappointment still took Lestrade by surprise after so many months.
"Let me guess, Sherlock called you," he said, his voice edged with contempt.
"He is somewhat concerned," allowed Mycroft. "He is insistent that he didn't take the piece of evidence that has gone missing."
"Colour me amazed."
The metal tip of his umbrella balanced on the cracked pavement, Mycroft turned it three hundred and sixty degrees before he looked up, his expression giving nothing away. "Sherlock has lied to me on numerous occasions but never to protect his reputation. His manner can be unfortunate but I know he takes his work with you seriously, even though it would never occur to him to say so."
Unimpressed, Lestrade pulled up the collar of his coat. The wind was whipping off the few leaves which remained on the plane trees which lined the road, sodden lumps of vegetation littering the pavement and road. "Oh, well that changes everything," he said, obviously on the point of leaving.
"He gave me his word that he didn't take it," added Mycroft.
"He does that. Usually just before he produces whatever piece of evidence he's taken. He's done it twice to me. I warned him that if he did it again he was out. He did it again. Even if he returned the evidence, with no verifiable chain of custody, crucial evidence will be excluded from any trial. There's no point identifying a killer if we can't get them off the street."
There was a short silence.
"Sherlock lied to you?"
"Like a trooper," said Lestrade, his anger building with every second he had to spend in Mycroft's company. "His only interest is in self-gratification - solving the puzzle, proving how clever he is, the buzz of the hunt. He has no interest in the consequences. No concept of responsibility. You've had charge of him since you were sixteen. You haven't done a very good job of it. If he'd ever had to face the consequence of his actions he might be a better person today. Do you even understand how serious this is?"
Mycroft's expression was arctic, the corners of his mouth curving downwards. "My judicial faculties are still functioning."
Lestrade snorted. "Not where Sherlock's concerned. You've spoilt him rotten!" He found himself enduring the pitiless assessment of a raptor as Mycroft's unblinking gaze threatened to bore through him.
"Really?" Mycroft said, in that soft, deceptively benign voice. "Do, please, continue to share your thoughts on how my family conducts itself."
Lestrade gave a snort of derision. "It'll take more than a snub from you to shut me up. Sherlock's spoilt. So are you, in a different way. I suppose it comes from having too much money and far too much influence."
"I suppose it must do," agreed Mycroft. "You're very trusting. How can you be certain I won't misuse this power you claim I possess?"
"The fact we're standing here having this conversation is proof that you already have, which leads me to wonder if there's a limit to what you would do for your brother." Lestrade paused for a moment. "Did Sherlock happen to mention that he's using again?" He thought he saw Mycroft flinch. "No? I thought not."
It was a moment before Mycroft looked up, his weary, disillusioned gaze settling on Lestrade with something like distaste. "How you must have enjoyed telling me that."
No one likes to be thought of as petty, particularly just after they have been. "If there's been anything enjoyable about the last few months I must have missed it. Where the fuck have you been?" Lestrade didn't recognise the sound of his own voice and he could feel the twin forces of rage and need pulsing beneath his skin like a drumbeat. "You swan off, leaving Sherlock hanging. He might have been over the physical addiction on the island but mentally... And you just abandoned him and expected a stranger to pick up the pieces."
The wind flicked up the edges of Mycroft's damp linen jacket and he gave an involuntary shudder. "He cut all ties. I've tried to respect his wishes." All he could think of was that Sherlock was using again, just when he had allowed himself to believe that the nightmare was over. Sherlock was using, and he hadn't known.
"Don't you understand anything? He didn't mean it. Don't you realise how lonely he is?"
"Lonely?" echoed Mycroft, trying to remember a time when Sherlock had ever sought out anyone's company, least of all his own.
"Work might be your drug of choice but normal people need more and - "
"I won't detain you any longer," cut in Mycroft, who'd had enough.
Lestrade took his second dismissal from Mycroft less well than he had taken the first, on the island. "That's it, is it?"
"What else did you have in mind?" asked Mycroft sardonically.
As he intended, it was enough to make Lestrade stalk off.
His head drooping now he was no longer under surveillance, Mycroft exhaled softly and leant against the closed rear door of the car. Stupid to have come here but when offered the perfect excuse he had been unable to resist the tempatation to see Gregory. He pinched the bridge of his nose. He should have remembered to be careful what he wished for.
Her dark hair streaming out as it was caught by a gust of wind, Anthea emerged from the shelter offered by the privet hedge, which dwarfed both her and the tiny garden it was engulfing, with nothing in her expression to betray that she had noticed Lestrade stop in his tracks, pause, then head back to them. Skilled in multi-tasking after eight months as Mycroft's assistant, she texted David, who was sitting in the driving seat.
"Happy birthday, sir," she said, when Lestrade was within earshot but out of Mycroft's line of vision.
"Good Lord, so it is," Mycroft said blankly, before he gave a derisive snort. "This one is shaping up to be almost as festive as the last, when I walked out in front of a motorcycle. But it seems a fitting end to a perfectly wretched week."
"Where to now?" prompted Anthea, aware that they had Lestrade's complete attention.
Mycroft shrugged. "What time is the car picking me up tomorrow?"
"Then you two go home."
"While we leave you wandering the streets of West Kensington?" Anthea said dryly.
Mycroft made an irritable sound and waved a dismissive hand at her. "Do I strike you as being in the mood for logic. Belgravia, then."
The car engine wheezed and failed to engage. It quickly became obvious they were not going to be driving off in the near future.
"Damn," Mycroft murmured as he pushed himself away from the car and turned to the driving seat. Only then did he notice Lestrade.
Mycroft tensed, visibly bracing himself. "Detective Inspector?"
Lestrade had been watching Mycroft for long enough to realise that he had just made a bad week worse for him. Mycroft wasn't dressed for London in November, he hadn't shaved that morning, his eyes were bloodshot and his face looked bruised with fatigue. He had obviously come straight from the airport - and after watching the news it wasn't hard to work out where he must have been - to help Sherlock, without even stopping to change into warmer clothing. Small wonder he was shivering. That linen jacket must be sodden by now.
"I was angry with you but that's no excuse for telling you about Sherlock the way I did," Lestrade said quietly. "And I should have added the most important part - he's been clean since mid-September. I've been testing him at irregular intervals. Fortunately - or unfortunately - there are plenty of unusual cases to keep him busy."
"He's clean?" repeated Mycroft, shuddering under the scourge of the wind, which was scouring away any vestige of warmth.
"I'm certain of it," said Lestrade.
"Thank you. What was he using?" Mycroft added after a moment.
Lestrade's phone rang and he fished in a pocket. "I need to take this," he muttered, turning away from the distraction of Mycroft's presence.
"Lestrade. You've found what? Explain how it's possible for new evidence to appear on a crime scene that's supposedly under police guard? Oh, they went off for a leak, did they? Together? I should bloody well think they have been. I'll want a word with their DCI myself. Are the SOCOs back on the scene? Good. No, you don't need me. Continue to monitor the scene. And for Christ's sake make sure they don't lose this new lot."
He rang off immediately and called Sherlock. Sad to think his number was first on his speed dial.
"Lestrade. I owe you an apology for not believing you - though if you hadn't lied... Yeah. I've just heard, someone's been playing silly buggers with our crime scene. The original note has been returned, together with three others, all in purple crayon like the first, all saying 'Who wants to play?' The SOCOs will be processing the scene for at least a couple of days. I'll take you over there when they're done. Until then, stay away. Not good enough. I want your word of honour. What? Yes, he's here. Of course I told him you'd been using - just for the dubious pleasure of watching him age ten years."
Lestrade remained silent for a moment, gave a small smile to himself and turned to thrust his phone at Mycroft. "For you."
While a fraternal truce was being hammered out, with Mycroft obviously getting the better terms, if his smug expression was anything to go by, Lestrade had a word with David, who glanced at Anthea, nodded and headed for his flat.
"Your phone," said Mycroft, a short time later. Much of the tension had left his face, although by this time he was shivering like an abused whippet.
As his hand brushed Mycroft's, Lestrade winced. "You silly sod, why didn't you sit in the car where it's warmer?
"I'm sorry for what I said earlier," he added, "you didn't deserve it." Then, because he knew he would lose his nerve if he stopped and thought about it, he added in a rush. "For a moment, when I first saw you, I thought you'd come to see me."
Mycroft stared at him with that disconcerting intensity of his, only there was nothing cold about this assessment. "You think I couldn't have got Sherlock reinstated with a couple of phone calls?" he said at last.
Lestrade let the arrogance pass as he absorbed what he was being told.
"Oh," he said articulately. "Good. That's...good." He jumped when there was a pointed cough from behind him and he turned and almost tripped over the luggage Anthea had been busy unloading. He hadn't even noticed her, let alone what she was doing.
"It's lucky I haven't got a bad heart," he said, more to prove he wasn't embarrassed than from any need to have a chat with her.
"I'm glad to hear it, sir."
"Enough," said Mycroft, but he looked amused. "Go home. I'll see you tomorrow morning, six a.m."
"You're spoiling me, sir."
"I know. I fight against these benevolent impulses. Go away."
A glance confirming that David was on his way back to them, Anthea said, "With pleasure, sir." She was already talking on her phone as she sauntered off.
"And you've been where?" Mycroft asked David.
"Checking the security of Detective Inspector Lestrade's flat."
"I asked him to," said Lestrade. "You're cold, wet and tired. I thought you could shower and change at my place and I knew he'd want to check it out first. Then we could have lunch. If you have time, that is."
Mycroft hesitated. His life was complicated enough without the complication of Gregory Lestrade. On the other hand, it was his birthday.
"I have the time," he said.
Lestrade's smile licked headily around him. "Then come into the warm," he invited.