“Oh, for God’s sake, Sherlock! This is getting ridiculous.”
There was the sound of worn leather creaking in alarm, and a frantic flurry of dust motes chased each other around in enthusiastic circles at the far edges of Sherlock’s peripheral vision. He ignored them, both the indications of and the significance of John’s sudden collapse into his armchair, in favor of staring intently out the window.
It was raining out, only just begun, and the men and women on the street below were moving desperately to adjust. Like ants, many would say, because many people were idiots; ants never blundered around blindly the way people did, desperately fashioning impromptu umbrellas out of newspapers and briefcases, accelerating and braking at asinine rates as they attempted to compensate for newly-slick roads. Ants, for all their lack of traditional intelligence, had purpose. They moved in service to the colony, with a single-minded focus that Sherlock was inclined to consider noble, on his more charitable days. No actions wasted with ants, no stupid unnecessary questions or pointless, obvious lies. Mankind had one or two things to learn from them.
And from bees.
“ - and are you even listening to me any more?”
Sherlock turned, one eyebrow raised, just as John sighed in resignation and pressed three fingers to the bridge of his nose.
“No,” he replied, arching the brow slightly higher for emphasis. “No, of course not - but I hardly need to, John. I already know what you’ve said and I really don’t know why you insist on repeating yourself so pedantically.” In the armchair, John was shaking his head, breathing with melodramatic regularity. “Just because something was worthy of my attentions the first time around does not make it interesting the second time around - especially the second time around. The man you brought me two days ago was nothing more than an unimaginative clone of the pawnbroker’s wife from last April, substituting a parakeet for the Renoir, naturally. The fact that it wasn’t immediately apparent to you is surely more cause for concern about your mental well-being than my own.”
He spun twice in place, snatching his violin on the second rotation, and plucked out a series of pentatonic scales before setting the instrument down on the window ledge.
“I’m not going through a crisis of any sort, and certainly not one related to my age proportional to my projected lifetime; I have no need for a car in London, and even if I did, BMW has been outperforming Porsche for the last seven and a half years; and I am not getting more picky over the years, people are simply running out of ways to commit interesting crimes. And even if I were becoming more thorough in my screening process …” Sherlock thrust his hands into his pockets, where they remained calmly for an admirable eighth of a second before reaching out to pick up and then quickly discard a scrap of greaseproof paper, “… it would only be because I am mired in tedium, John.
"My mind is an instrument, it cannot sit idle playing and replaying Dancla’s Opus 84 and expect to maintain its brilliance. I need a challenge, John; I need a chase.”
He paused, frowning.
“It was hardly vigorous enough to count as an explosion, anyway.”
“It knocked a two foot hole in the wall,” John commented, voice bland; the epitome of reason, that man, and far too frequently correct for Sherlock’s present tastes. He waved a dismissive hand.
“And knocked half of the tiles loose in the downstairs kitchen.”
“A man will be in tomorrow to take care of that.”
“You probably frightened Mrs. Hudson half to death!”
“I did no such thing!” Sherlock snorted indignantly. “Mrs. Hudson is made of far sterner stuff than that, and you know it. She barely even screamed.”
“Well, you would have done with me,” John muttered, shaking his head. The hand dropped, though, and a sliver of lightness filtered into his tone; he was amused in spite of the maddening disapproval, although Sherlock wasn’t entirely sure that that constituted an improvement.
“Listen,” he continued, cutting Sherlock off before he could begin to analyze aloud the relative merits of John’s vs Mrs. Hudson’s demonstrated constitutions, “I - I don’t care. I know you have your reasons, and I’m sorry that I’m not around as much to distract you - although you could have found a new flatmate -”
“Ridiculous,” Sherlock muttered. “The availability of your bedroom was the only worthwhile part of your leaving, I’m not going to sacrifice my privacy and my laboratory -”
“Well, then,” John hurried on, sounding almost desperate, “that’s your own fault as well. I know you don’t particularly care about helping mankind, and I know you don’t really need the money, but if you don’t start actually taking cases, Sherlock, I swear to god someone will murder you just to make you - stop fidgeting - and I will be very hard-pressed to blame them!” Fingers tightening over leather armrests, muscles tense in neck and shoulders, eyebrows canted upward. It had always been so very easy to torment him this way.
Still, Sherlock obediently calmed his restless hands, lacing his fingers to constrain them. John exhaled, relaxing visibly the moment he did so, and Sherlock couldn’t help but shake his head in bemusement; nearly eleven years of cohabitation, and an additional seven of close friendship, had done very little to soften the impact that his moods had on the other man. Whether the same could be said in reverse? Not that such a thing ever would be said, of course. That was a ridiculous notion, a thought so firmly rooted on sentiment as to be beneath consideration, much less expression … and yet.
“I presume you have some sort of plan,” Sherlock said, quite calmly. He avoided the word ‘ultimatum’, with the vague thought that if no one said it, the situation might not rise quite that extremely.
John spread his hands in an approximation of a shrug, and the thought died as quickly as it had been born; everyone had their dangerous points, and years of experience had proved that John was never so formidable as when he seemed willing to be reasonable.
And then, Sherlock began to vibrate.
“Just a moment!” It came out almost joyously as he rummaged through his pocket (two paperclips, one black rook, and the cap of a bic biro) and emerged with his phone, but his face fell the moment Sherlock saw the screen. In the chair, John seemed to perk up in response to the renewed slump of Sherlock’s shoulders, but he ignored that in favour of answering. One of these patient, greying men was the lesser of two evils, though at the moment it was difficult to decide exactly which.
“What is it?”
“Lestrade?” John asked in a low murmur.
Sherlock rolled his eyes.
“Sherlock?” The voice from the headset was muffled.
“Obviously.” Sherlock rolled his eyes again. “I had thought you were beyond this redundant inquiry by now, Lestrade.”
His response came in the form of a series of muted noises, plastic shifting against hair shifting against fabric as the man on the other end of the line instinctively adjusted his phone to its typical, neck-wrenching position. A phone call with a purpose, then, requiring the use of Lestrade’s hands while he spoke. Folios to flip through, references to check, facts to relay. Well, that at least stood a fraction of a chance of being interesting.
“How long ago was it taken?” Sherlock asked, as the noises faded. The audible pause on the other end was only moderately gratifying.
“How do you know I’m phoning you about an ‘it’?” Lestrade asked, his habitual curiosity masking something else in his voice. Across the room John cocked his head, unconsciously echoing the question.
Sherlock waved a dismissive hand, more for John's benefit than for than the Detective Inspector's.
“You’re not worried enough for it to be an abduction,” he said. “You wouldn’t bother getting your papers in order before speaking if you thought that time was of the essence - and you know that I do believe it to be, in that situation. You’re too anxious for it to be murder, though, and not simply because of the habitual strain violent crime ordinarily lays on your remarkably-active conscience. You wouldn’t have bothered to ask my name if you were truly panicked, but you are prone to unnecessary conversational elements when you are under pressure; a what, then, not a who.”
He had begun to pace, quick lengths back and froth in front of the window. “Theft is most likely, especially given Thursday’s auction; Picasso always seems to be irresistible this time of year. Whatever was stolen will need to be recovered quickly and quietly. And so I ask you, how long ago was it taken?”
There was potential here. Item recovery was something that didn’t end up on his plate nearly as often as the more pedantic expressions of criminal creativity, murder, arson, blackmail. That the crime had been perpetrated against an institution rather than an individual added another element of complexity. Oh, it wouldn’t keep him occupied for more than a day or two - nor could it, with the auction to be held in three days’ time, but it would be an improvement over cataloging soil samples for the third time.
John, damn the man, was looking amused.
From the phone, however, came an uncomfortable cough.
“You’re quite right about the auction, Sherlock,” Lestrade said, redundantly. “But … nothing’s been taken.”
Sherlock’s eyebrows climbed a fraction.
“Surely nothing has been mysteriously added to the collection.”
“No!” There was a laugh, but it faded quickly. “No, that would be easy enough for the tech boys to figure out, I’d imagine. No, I’m afraid this is more subtle than that.”
“I doubt that.” John’s eyebrows narrowed reprovingly; Sherlock turned his back to the man, staring out the window at the milling throng of sodden passersby. “If you tell me what it was that did happen, I may decide for myself.”
A sigh didn’t cover the soft sound of papers sliding against each other on a desk; Sherlock was never entirely sure how he felt about the detective’s steadfast adherence to paper in the face of technology’s relentless advancement. Once everything was in order, Lestrade cleared his throat.
“Two days ago,” he said. “Three people - Margery Anderson, Samuel Davis, and Gemma Harford, have you heard of her? Yeah, 'course you have, shouldn’t have asked - were approached by a man who claimed to be representing Christie’s, telling them that certain pieces were being auctioned independently from the rest of the collection -”
“Forgeries,” Sherlock cut in, nodding to himself.
“Exactly. It’s a series of sketches … three Vermeers, two Rembrandts, two Bosch … Bosches? Uh, one Cézanne and yeah, one Picasso. The, erm. fillet au chien.”
“Fillette,” Sherlock corrected absently. “1905, gouache on cardboard, yes. Interesting.”
He shot John a quelling look and brushed a pile of tabloids off of his desk, very nearly knocking over the remains of a Briggs-Rauscher oscillating reaction as he uncovered a laptop and slid into the nearest chair.
“How long ago were these three individuals approached?”
He opened up a string of browser windows, barely glancing at the results of each query or site before moving on to the next.
“Early last week,” Lestrade answered. “Mrs. Anderson and Mr. Davis were each approached at their workplaces by a tall, blonde young man in a dark suit. Miss Harford got the message from one of her personal assistants; she said she hadn’t seen the person who dropped it off. Either that or else she didn’t remember.”
“Likely someone hired from a messenger service.” Sherlock closed the lid of the laptop, rose, and moved back to the window again. “He left cards, I presume? I’ll need to take a look at one of the originals as soon as possible, although I doubt that it will be of any real use in solving your case.”
“I’ll see what I can do.” That sort of request had been met with opposition, once, but now Lestrade’s voice contained nothing more than weary resignation.
“The choice of targets is marginally more promising.” Sherlock tapped his fingers in a staccato rhythm against the sill. “The Dean of Oxford University Medical School, the Chairman of the Board at Barclays’, and of course dear Miss Harford, Britain’s current socialite distraction. Of course, given the value of the pieces in question any potential buyer would need to be reasonably wealthy, and therefore quite possibly influential. Still, it would be difficult to find three people more likely to attract attention.”
Lestrade made a snorting sound that contained more liquid than air, then swore.
“You might be advised to refrain from drinking your coffee until we’ve finished with this conversation,” Sherlock advised blandly.
“I’ll never get used to you doing that,” Lestrade complained. “Don’t tell me that you knew who the other two were off the top of your head. I won’t believe you.”
“I didn’t know that Margery Anderson had taken over for James Forthwrite at Oxford, no. I simply type at a reasonable speed, and am not dependent on a secretary if I want to find useful information.”
Lestrade gave an exasperated sigh.
“Obnoxious …” He reigned himself in with obvious effort. “Okay, so they’re prominent. What are you getting at?”
Sherlock sighed and threw himself down in his armchair.
“Generally, one creates a forgery because one wishes to sell it in lieu of the original, yes?” This part was always challenging; speak slowly, clearly, simplify already clear concepts down into their component parts - but not too far, modulate tone to avoid giving excessive offense. Even Lestrade, for all of their years of partnership, bristled if he decided that Sherlock was talking down to him. As though an alternative were possible.
“Yeah.” Lestrade sounded wary.
“Why, then, choose as prospective buyers three individuals who are under careful public scrutiny, who are known to have close relationships with the media and with law enforcement? Any one of them might have chosen to keep the incident quiet, but engaging with all three of them all but guarantees that the attempted crime will be brought to police attention within hours.”
“So … why would they do that, then?”
Sherlock rose to his feet in one smooth, fluid motion.
“Ah, but if I knew that, my dear Lestrade, I would already be able to tell you who it was you were looking for.”
He moved to the door, shouldering his way into the macintosh John had draped on the clothes horse on his way in. John’s eyebrows drew together in a truly impressive frown, and he spread his arms in an exasperated expression of incredulity.
My raincoat! he mouthed silently, beginning to rise from his chair, but Sherlock waved an impatient hand at him and he retreated back into the cushions with a groan.
“You could tell me already,” Lestrade was repeating back over the phone line. The soft scratching sound of a biro on 20 lb paper suggested methodical note-taking; summarizing what Sherlock had already said. “Does that mean you’ll help us out, then?”
Sherlock pursed his lips, transferring his phone to the other shoulder as he settled the raincoat in place.
“Of course,” he replied magnanimously. He dropped John’s wallet onto a pile of French and German crossword puzzles by the front door. He shoved two notebooks and a small pencil case into the pocket in its place. “You probably don’t realize it, Lestrade, but you may have actually stumbled upon the first half-interesting case I’ve seen in twenty-seven months.”
The Detective Inspector grunted.
“I’m not bringing you in on this to entertain you.”
“No, no, that is simply an incidental benefit, and one that you may feel free to disregard if you find my improved mental health somehow distasteful.”
It was still raining out, but the clouds on the southern horizon were a fractionally paler shade of gray. It would begin to clear shortly; just enough time to reacquaint himself with certain aspects of the landscape and track down one or two old contacts. Then it would be time to call in a very old favor from a very old enemy.
The inclement weather had warned away some of the less enthusiastic sightseers, and so Trafalgar Square was merely crowded rather than nearly-impassable. Tourists clustered together in groups, umbrellas thrust awkwardly over shoulders and into bags already filled to overflowing with t-shirts, miniature replicas of municipal landmarks, and overpriced sheets of plastic generously branded as ‘ponchos’. Organized tours followed their guides like sodden, varicoloured ducklings, while families unfortunate enough to have brought small children along on their afternoon’s adventure now begged and wheedled and dragged their recalcitrant charges across the square. Two groups of men were arguing loudly about football in Hebrew while an American family looked on in horror, clearly waiting for the inevitable display of terrorism.
The usual complement of buskers, panhandlers, caricaturists, and other street artists had their stations set up around the edges of the Square. Most of them were dressed for the weather in sturdy rain gear; a handful of small tents were erected over clusters of resigned-looking men and women, and one woman had her easel set up under a contraption that seemed to be made from old camera hoods sewn together over reinforced plastic sheeting.
Good; Adrian Larsson had always held an indulgent fondness for the light quality following an afternoon rain, and he’d been sketching the Landseer’s Lions for well over two decades now. If he wasn’t here already, he would likely be arriving shortly. Sherlock made a slow circuit of the Square, spine hunched to take a full three inches off of his height, hands deep in his pockets and a disinterested expression on his face. No sign of the little Swedish forger yet, so he made a second pass around and then settled down on the northern stairs to wait.
A small moleskine and a broken-off piece of charcoal emerged from various pockets, and Sherlock set his hands to work on gesture drawings while he began to mull over the problem. It wasn’t as good as a cigarette, of course; nothing was as good as a cigarette, the combination of chemical stimulation and ritualistic action that centered the mind and encouraged productive, focused thought. If his lungs had started to protest the abuse, that was simply a consequence he would have to accept; except that the public no longer viewed tobacco consumption as an individual problem. It had gotten to the point where it was more difficult to find an acceptable place to consume the required number of cigarettes for a given puzzle than the entire process was worth, and so Sherlock had reluctantly, indignantly, traded in the habit for this inferior substitute.
Several things were, of course, immediately apparent. First, so obvious as to hardly be worth conscious thought: the orchestrator of this little crime was connected with Thursday’s upcoming auction. An addendum to that: he was likely not directly affiliated with Christie’s. Sherlock grimaced - no, it was possible that he was affiliated with Christie’s, and was also simply an idiot. Lestrade would like that, though Sherlock shuddered to think of the abuse of the criminal process that would occur in that case. He disapproved of crime, certainly, but that didn’t mean he enjoyed seeing it executed poorly.
As for the three targets, it was possible that they had each been chosen at random from a pool of influential locals, but it was not likely. Any list containing one of them in a position of prominence would not include the other two; socialites were simply not listed with deans of medicine in respectable sources, and Sherlock had checked his usual online sources to make sure that they hadn’t featured in some sort of piece about the “Fifteen Brits You Didn’t Know You Needed To Know” or some other such nonsense.
No, it was much more likely that the mind behind this - he would not yet say ‘mastermind’ - knew these individuals personally, at least casually. That would give Lestrade something to do, while Sherlock spent his time following more sensitive trails; the Picasso, for instance -
He grunted as a sharp knee collided with his left shoulder.
A pair of long legs wobbled past him on the stairs.
“What on earth are you doing?” their owner demanded. “Lying in wait for someone?”
A tall young man in his late teens, with thick-rimmed spectacles and his hair pulled up in the high, messy bun that seemed to be fashionable these days. All save the bottom two inches just above the neck which had, Sherlock noticed with disapproval, been shaved quite close to the scalp in a useless display of adolescent rebellion.
He raised an eyebrow.
“I hardly think that I can be accused of ‘lying’ anywhere,” he said, “as I am seated openly on an uncrowded section of the staircase, minding my own business. When, that is, I am not having to defend myself against those who would send me tumbling down..”
The adolescent youth tensed, shoulders squaring. He held a battered book in one hand, spine worn, once-gilded letters now merely indentations in the leather. Virgil did not deserve to be held so tightly in clenched first.
“You haven’t answered my question,” he bit off.
He was standing directly in front of Sherlock, closing off much of the view of the Square, clearly yearning for a fight. Sherlock lowered his eyebrow and pursed his lips.
“What I am doing here, you mean?”
“I am sketching,” he said, holding up the moleskine and charcoal in case additional evidence proved necessary. “Or I would be, if you were not blocking my line of sight. If you will excuse me.”
He set charcoal to paper and cocked his head expectantly. The young man stared at him for several seconds, anger and embarrassment losing out to curiosity on his thin, angular face. Then with a snort of derision that only a disillusioned teenager can produce, he sidled left and retreated several steps up the stairway. The soft sigh of rubber, the scrape of rivets and denim against stone indicated that he had seated himself up there. Well and good; what he did outside of Sherlock’s sight was his own business.
The Square’s population ebbed and flowed over the course of the next hour as families replaced families, tour groups replaced tour groups. Sherlock tracked three drug deals, one runaway child, and seven extramarital affairs as he mentally traced through the extensive webs connecting Anderson, Davis and Harford. Anderson and Harford were both members of several clubs, and Harford and Davis both had summer homes in the same seaside village. The closest connection that Sherlock could find between Anderson and Davis, however, was a fondness for philately, and it was hard to imagine the young Miss Gemma Harford devoting her afternoons to a stamp collection.
“If they haven’t shown up yet they’re probably not coming today,” a clear tenor voice said behind him. “You don’t really get much other than tour groups this late on a Sunday.”
He slowly removed the charcoal from the page and closed the book, then pivoted to look up at the young man who was peering down at him over the tops of his knees.
“What did you say?”
“Sorry, are you hard of hearing?” The tone was courteous, but there was a hint of triumph in the corners of his mouth and eyes. “I said, if you’re waiting for someone, you might want to give up because they’re probably not going to be coming today. This late on a Sunday, you don’t usually get many locals.”
“There is nothing wrong with my hearing,” Sherlock said coolly, “though I am lacking somewhat in patience. Why do you think that I’m waiting for someone?”
The teen stretched his legs out in front of him, and Sherlock felt his own kneecaps twinge in sympathy. His joints had never liked the rain, and the disagreement was only getting worse as time continued its inevitable progression.
“I thought it was obvious,” Sherlock's lanky observer said, sliding down first one step and then a second with aggressive disregard for the seat of his trousers. “Your sketches, you keep sweeping back and forth across the Square. Aside from the obvious distractions - the little girl with the enormous umbrella, the dog chasing the woman in the spike heels - you were mostly focused on shorter men. There,” he reached down to tap an abstract collection of lines, “and there. You were drawing them while you checked to see if they were the person you were expecting.”
Slowly, carefully, Sherlock lowered his book out of the reach of prying fingers.
“My god,” he said dryly, “it can think.”
The young man’s lip curled and he snatched his hand back.
“My god,” he bit off, “it can recognize another human being when it’s hit over the head with one.” He rose sharply to his feet, dusting the backs of his legs. “And here I thought that your generation was all about manners and proper decorum.”
He shoved the worn old Latin book into one of the pockets of his utility jacket and stormed down the stairs.
Sherlock felt himself tense for a moment, and then he relaxed. Adolescence was a time for setting oneself against the standards established by those who came before, a time of bristling hormones and misplaced confidence. This particular example might have some potential when he grew out of his awkward edges, and perhaps he was right: if Larsson were going to have come this afternoon, he would already be here.
Sherlock closed his book and stowed it in his own pockets, trying to decide if a curry would be sufficient to sooth John’s irritation about the borrowed raincoat. He looked up to see that his unwanted companion had stopped half way down the steps and was now staring at him in open incredulity. Sherlock sighed and swept his hair back from his face.
“Young man, I -”
Sherlock blinked at the passion infusing those two words. The youth’s face reddened with rage, but there were the beginnings of triumph blooming as well.
“’Young man’?” He was quickly building up steam. “No wonder you’re not making the papers anymore, if that’s all that’s left of ‘the best mind in Britain’.”
And he reached up, caught the tie that held up the bun, and let a cascade of long blonde hair flow down over his - over her shoulders.