There were lists everywhere, his whole world was made of lists; that was the problem.
He had a list of the emotions John's face ran through as he went about his day (aesthetic appreciation, aggravation, amazement, all the way down to weariness and wonder). He had lists – all much shorter – of the emotions he was allowed to sham when interrogating a client, a witness, or a suspect.
His phone rang, and he pulled it out of his pocket to peer at the screen. Mycroft, of course, but as he thumbed Ignore he considered that there was a list in his mobile, a list of contacts; was Moriarty warning him that every one of those people, whatever their varying degrees of usefulness, would be destroyed?
If that was the case, then Moriarty was uncharacteristically moving backwards; he'd had it correct before – only John's destruction was significant, really, so widening the threat's range changed nothing. And it was a threat, a hint of what was to come. That note hadn't been scrawled over another corpse or any similar trophy; he still had time to stop whatever Moriarty was planning.
Sherlock sank back into the seat of the taxi and let London paint streaks of neon light across his eyes as John sat, warm and tense, beside him.
"We're just making lists of lists," John grumbled, keeping the ridiculous object tucked against his back. A red rubber hot-water bottle was a useful invention, but it did not need a "cosy" that looked like one of John's own jumpers; Clara and Harry had obviously thought themselves very clever for presenting it to John when he and John had gone to their flat for tea last week. "One for the hostages Moriarty used last time. One for the sites where he planted the bombs. One for all of the crimes we know he's organised. We could keep going forever." John rose and stood deliberately in front of him, breaking the rhythm of Sherlock's fevered pacing. "But what good would tearing up any of these lists do? These things have already happened. It's not like tearing up a list of them would change that."
Sherlock stared, wondering if John's simple words had unlocked the puzzle. Were they supposed to look to the future, rather than the past? Or was that what Moriarty was counting on, a way to throw them off the scent? "What if he's steering us away from his past crimes because there's evidence we never bothered to look for since we already knew Moriarty was responsible? Something that would let us track him down?" The message's very bluntness rendered it opaque, opened it to a thousand plausible readings.
"It could mean just 'starting fresh,'" John ventured, eyes drifting over Sherlock's shoulder as he thought his words through. John's eyelashes were absurdly long and curled at the tips, and he smelled like the spiced chai he'd been drinking, the note of cardamom especially strong. "You know, 'tear up your list' because that chapter's done."
"That leaves an unacceptably wide field for us to cover," Sherlock objected, curling his hands into fists to hid their shaking.
"Yeah, but it's Moriarty; he's not interested in a fair fight with you." John shook his head and headed for the sofa and his surely tepid hot-water bottle. "Look, tell you what. We're only going in circles right now, so we either need to call it a night or settle in and try to shake up our thinking."
"So what would you suggest?" Sherlock asked, asperity and the return of his tremor making his tone harsher than he'd meant. "Setting up a pillow fort here so that we can swap theories in our sleep?"
John kept a grip on his temper, and his hands were perfectly steady. "We come at this a different way." John was practical and competent, Sherlock noted dispassionately; he was exactly the ally required by the situation. "I haven't looked at Moriarty's file since we got out of hospital, so I will go through all of your notes, which are probably on my laptop anyway." Sherlock nodded, a very small thrill working its way up his spine at John's calm assumption of command. "And you will give your brain some breathing room. Don't get sucked into Moriarty's puzzles. Just play your violin. You said it helps you think."
Bach had never been so troublesome before. The partita neither taxed nor eased his traitorous hands, and the sounds his warmly glowing violin produced were as clear and rounded as ever; the problem was John. John, who sat and listened with a faraway look like the music had stopped all his thoughts, who made Sherlock want to shut off his own thought processes – the progression from tonic to dominant, the execution of each fingering sequence, the feeling that he was safe at home, the knowledge that he was all that stood between a madman and chaos – and just sink into the silence underneath the music.
But that was impossible. Music wasn't an escape; it was an alternate route, a different path for his brain, one he valued as much for its utility as its beauty. He turned to Bach in particular for that balanced melding of mathematical precision and wild inspiration. John, overlapping and overwriting all of these functions, would simply have to be incorporated, or else he would derail everything. Sherlock looked John in the eyes as he played, waiting until John dropped his dreamy gaze back to the laptop in front of him, and the air was cleared, and his thoughts knew where to go.
"This note is different," John said, as if the music had trained his brain into the proper channels as well; "look at the greeting and the signature. It's always been 'my dear' before, not 'dear Holmes.' Why's he being so formal now, why 'Moriarty' and not just 'Jim'?"
"Don't know," Sherlock said, absently and truthfully. The disparity had bothered him too, but the body of the note – Tear up your list – was surely where the clues really lay. The list – of his own past cases, perhaps? A warning that the game was about to escalate and Moriarty wanted to be the sole focus of his attention?
"Was it definitely him, then? Couldn't have been another of his gang – one he hasn't murdered yet – who painted the note and messed it up?"
Intriguing, to see the ways John's mind worked when it tried to cope with the deviousness of Moriarty's. "No. There were characteristics that stayed consistent in the handwriting, even taking into account the changes in medium and presentation. It was Moriarty." He ran it through his mind again. "He's added something," he realised, and John sat up a little straighter, though his eyes were weary and the light glinting off his wristwatch was the only brightness left about him. "The expectation of a wider audience. That's why this message was on the wall in letters a foot high, with a proper salutation and signature."
John looked unconvinced and shook his head just once. "If I had to guess, I'd say he was subtracting, not adding, but I couldn't tell you what the buggering blue hell he's playing at."
Sherlock cracked his eyes open when he felt something being dropped on his stomach. John, freshly showered and shaved, was standing over him. "If you won't sleep, at least change into something comfortable," John said, unable to keep the note of disapproval out of his tone. There, on Sherlock's stomach, were his pyjamas and dressing gown. Sherlock started unbuttoning his shirt and John picked up his wallet and fetched his jacket. "I'm off, back at one. Do try to eat something before I get home, won't you?"
Sherlock watched him, the way his fingers curled around the squarish shape in his trouser pocket as if he needed more reassurance that his mobile was handy than simply the weight of it. "Whose call are you expecting?" he asked, and John rocked back a step before smiling wryly.
"You'd have been burnt at the stake not that long ago, you know," John said without any real rancour. "I called Anna to tell her I'm sorry about her brother, but I had to leave a voicemail."
"Do you think the last message was meant for her as well?" Sherlock asked, sitting up to strip out of his shirt and pull the t-shirt John had selected over his head, inside out, as he couldn't bear the sensation of the tag against the nape of his neck when he had work to do. He'd got the fastenings for his trousers open when John finally answered.
"No," John said simply, and walked out of the door.
Mrs. Hudson – coached by John, no doubt – appeared around nine with half a shepherd's pie and a story about not having room in her fridge for the leftovers. Sherlock accepted it with bad grace, shooing her out, and returned to the sofa to spoon it into his mouth, one unnecessary bite at a time.
"Up," John said when he walked through the door, though the peremptory command was softened by the pleased expression on his face as he took in the empty dish on the coffee table. "You're going to shower and we're going to try the proper meal thing again."
"Boring," Sherlock grumbled, but John merely smacked the soles of his bare feet with a careless hand.
"I mean it. Go."
The problem with eating once already was that it made him hungry for more, reminded his stomach that food was readily available. He'd trained his body out of weakness like this, and here John was blithely ruining it with his petty, self-righteous insistence on what he termed "medical necessities." Sherlock stood under the spray of the shower and resolved to eat as little as possible, just to score off John. He pushed his fingers viciously into his abdomen, as if physically shoving the hunger down, and smiled when it worked.
"Angelo's?" John asked when he sat on the sofa to tie his shoelaces.
Angelo led them to the table he always held for them, just next to the picture window, and told them they were having the aubergine parmigiana. Hope evidently sprang eternal in Angelo's dense breast, as he returned only moments later with a candle, bread and oil, and a promise that he'd play something "more romantic" on the stereo.
John dashed salt and pepper into the small bowl of olive oil with chopped garlic and reached for a warm roll, stirring the mixture before sampling it. He smiled, evidently savouring the taste, then cocked his head, the better to hear the painfully stupid song being sung by a mediocre musician. "That's Dean Martin," John said; "my Auntie Ruth loved him."
"You don't have an aunt called Ruth," Sherlock countered.
"She was my mum's best friend and she lived next door; I called her Auntie Ruth," John said placidly, taking another bite of bread.
"However much of an aphrodisiac the man's voice was for her, it doesn't appear to be working on you. Though perhaps that's the company," Sherlock said waspishly, the better to forestall John's inevitable plea for him to just eat something, Sherlock.
"Wait," John said. "'Tear up your list,' that's him!"
Sherlock didn't have the slightest idea what John was on about but John would never fabricate evidence or insist on a weak connection. "What?" he prompted.
"He's got a song," John said before starting to hum, filling in words as he remembered them, his gaze fixed on the ceiling as if that would aid his memory. His voice, though soft, was a strong and true tenor. "'Once you're kissed by Amy, tear up your list, it's Amy,'" he sang, just as Angelo returned with two large plates of aubergine covered with a chunky tomato sauce and melted cheese.
Sherlock looked up to wave off the offer of even more cheese and caught Angelo's conspiratorial wink, clearly brought on by the sight of John evidently serenading him. He rolled his eyes and reached for John's phone to Google the lyrics, searching for a clue.
John didn't wait before digging in, recognising that he was destined to lose any and all arguments and he might as well eat his own food while it was still hot. "These lyrics are tragically insipid," Sherlock announced, unable to find any phrasing that echoed any of Moriarty's other coded proclamations.
"The song's just about a girl named Amy," John said, a quarter of his plate already clean. He pointed a fork at Sherlock. "Eat. I can't think of anyone we know named Amy, can you?"
Sherlock swapped phones, picking up his own and texting Lestrade. "What you said earlier, about the hostages Moriarty used as pips. Two of them were women. Maybe one was named Amy."
He could see John deciding not to mention that one of those women was dead. "Poor lady, she's been through more than enough. Send the text, and then you're going to eat at least half of what's on your plate while you wait for the response."
He typed out Names & information on Moriarty's hostages required. SH "Am I?"
"I'm quite certain," John said with a smile sharp enough to cut, and Sherlock choked down his first bite.
He'd got through nearly half his meal – surprisingly enjoyable – when a familiar black car pulled up just in front of the picture window. He felt his face tighten with anger and stabbed at the fleshy lump of roasted aubergine still sitting on his plate.
"What is it?" John asked, turning to look for himself. It had surprised Sherlock, that very first time they'd sat in Angelo's, that John made no move to keep his back to a wall as all soldiers were surely trained to do. That the lack of such an instinct meant that John hadn't found many places of safety since leaving his days as a soldier behind made something sharp catch in Sherlock's viscera; he wanted John to be able equate having a wall at his back with a sense of security and a quiet mind. Mycroft and Moriarty between them had done their best to level all the walls John had found and leave John exposed, Sherlock thought, holding his knife and fork like weapons to wield against his brother.
"There is a reason I don't take his calls or respond to his texts," Sherlock snapped, glad to be brought down from the precipice of his own illogical emotion to the level of merely annoyed, but before John could dig any deeper, Angelo had guided them out of his restaurant, one hand on John's elbow and the other hovering over Sherlock's shoulder. The driver – six feet tall, blond, twice-divorced, pious – wordlessly held the car door open, and John shrugged and stepped in.
They were alone in the backseat, and the soundproof glass partition between them and the driver was raised to its full height. "Huh," John said, looking out of the windows on both sides, apparently needing to orient himself as the car began to move, "I didn't think it'd be just us back here."
Sherlock sighed, unwilling to admit he felt the same surprise. "Yes, whomever will you flirt ineptly with now?"
"What are you – how did –? You deduced that I tried to pull . . . Anthea, or whatever her name is?" John sputtered.
"It's like clockwork. I could point you at a pretty woman and as long as she wasn't actively threatening you – or me or your sister – you'd pursue her."
"God, you make me sound so pathetic. And desperate."
"Mmm," Sherlock said noncommittally. "She looks better with short hair than she did when you met her."
John drummed his fingers along his leg, still trying to plot their route despite the fact that his mental map of London paled in comparison to Sherlock's. "So you're saying she's even further out of my league now. Cheers."
"I never said that," Sherlock protested, stung into honesty. There were plenty of valid reasons to keep the two of them apart, but John's worthiness was never in question.
"Why would your brother want us to come to Barts?" John asked, peering out of the window again, then belatedly smiling at the implied compliment.
"Why has Lestrade not answered my text?" Sherlock responded.
"Give him some time," John scolded as the car pulled up to the kerb. "He might be trying to eat lunch and not think about death and destruction for an hour or two."
"We might not have an hour or two –"
"He doesn't know that, does he, because you've not been telling anyone about Moriarty's new notes," John pointed out. He blinked against the light as the driver held his door open and turned to go.
Before John could go anywhere, someone else had sat down next to him. Mycroft.
Sherlock crossed his arms, waiting to hear how Mycroft would try to get under his skin; silence was the best way to draw an opponent out, but John, of course, had to ruin it. "Hello, Mycroft," John said, sounding faintly surprised. There was a pause, and then John actually reached out to touch Mycroft's arm. "Can I –?"
"Doctor Watson," Mycroft interrupted, somehow sounding as if he were doing a bad impression of himself, "I require your help."
Help, thought Sherlock. Not assistance. It was unlike Mycroft to use monosyllables.
"Anything," John said, apparently believing that he owed Mycroft something.
"Oh, what is it?" Sherlock said. "Another memory stick for John to fetch?" He could have gone on, but John's hand was applying rather firm pressure to his thigh.
"Don't. You. D-dare," Mycroft said, unbridled venom suddenly flooding his tone. "Th-this is all your f-f-fault." Mycroft hadn't stuttered since Sherlock was quite small; he'd made the effort to overcome it when he'd realised that Sherlock was learning to speak by mimicking him, and the sound of his own impediment echoed back to him had been too much to bear. Or so Mummy had once confided in Sherlock, another small act of aggression in a family built on them. "You th-think you're the cleverest man to walk the earth, that it's within your rights to play games with other people's lives as pieces!"
John's hand tightened warningly, but Sherlock had had enough of being lectured. No doubt Mycroft had worked himself into a jingoistic rage over a case he'd wanted Sherlock to take for the good of queen and country, but Mycroft's cases were nowhere near as interesting as Moriarty. "Moriarty set the rules, but it has not been a game for some time," he said crisply. As soon as he spoke, he wished he hadn't bothered, as it seemed that neither John nor Mycroft was paying him any attention.
"No," John said softly, sounding shocked, still looking only at Mycroft.
"No," Mycroft echoed. "Nor have you been my brother, since you have turned your back on what is right and chosen to engage with a madman bent only on his own pleasure."
"What?" Sherlock asked, unable for the first time in years to pierce even the topmost layer of Mycroft's meanings. His mobile chimed its notification for a new text message, but he had to work out Mycroft first; that was suddenly a more daunting prospect than it had been since his cocaine days.
Mycroft met his gaze for the first time since he'd got in the car. He looked like he wanted to delete Sherlock – no, more than that, obliterate him. He could do it, too; he'd been the one to teach Sherlock how simple deleting the unnecessary, the chaff, could be. "I cannot strip you of the name Holmes," Mycroft said, tone perfectly level, as if he were ordering his luncheon. "But I can promise never to call you my brother again. Get out."
In a rush, it all came into Sherlock's mind with the inevitability of crashing water, the pool slapping him down and closing over his head as he struggled for air. His brother's shadow was gone; Moriarty had killed her.
So Mycroft had loved her. How pedestrian. Smooth face, smooth voice, smooth nails, smooth legs – apparently they were worth quite a lot to Mycroft, whether he'd enjoyed them or not. Ugh, vulgar. No, but she'd had a mind, too, quite a good one, that she hid behind well-practised dimness, though he'd never understood the point of such illogical disguise. Surely for her to have stayed by Mycroft's side for all those years argued that she –
"Get. Out," Mycroft repeated.
Sherlock adjusted his gloves. "John," he said, opening his door.
"Doctor Watson," Mycroft said insistently. "I do require your skills," and that was enough for John, who didn't even turn to Sherlock before murmuring his agreement.
Sherlock stepped out and slammed the door behind him. He would see John back at the flat, and then he could ask how on earth John had come to the realisation before he had.
The text was from Lestrade. Stephanie Quinn, junior executive at Lloyd's. Geoffrey Krajewski, second year at Hull. Louisa Hutchinson, seamstress, deceased. Peter Forrester, prep school in Westminster. What is going on? Is he back? No Amy in the list, and surely no one named Stephanie or Louisa would have been called Amy.
He'd walked while reading, and had ended up in front of Barts. He could circle back to Dominion House and have Molly fetch him a coffee, but he'd have to listen to her inane chatter then. Better to let his brain and his legs work at the same speed, he thought, and he took off, not caring where he ended up.
Halfway to Spitalfields, he had abandoned the search for Amy and found a new angle to pursue from Lestrade's text. That child, the hostage in the puzzle with the forged Vermeer, had been a late addition to the stage. Only after the Golem had failed to kill him and John had Moriarty needed his thumb on the scale, and he'd used the boy – Peter Forrester – as the tipping weight. That boy was the key. Had he simply been near to hand? Or had Moriarty snatched the first child he'd seen on the street?
No self-respecting Westminster parents would fail to send their child immediately to therapy, as if that would erase his memory of what had been done to him. It would be an elementary matter to locate the child's doctor, and from there it was even simpler: get hold of the child's file and test the threads until he found the one that led back to Moriarty.
It was unsettling, riding alone in a taxi; he knew better, and yet he kept turning as if he could conjure John into being there next to him if only he found the right moment to stop time and perform his magic.
He frowned at the recollection that Mycroft had high-handedly taken John off with him, as if he needed an immediate replacement for Anthea, someone who would always stand one step behind. But John belonged with him, trying to figure out what link there could have been between Anthea and Moriarty.
He had to know what was going on. He texted John. Report immediately. SH The cabbie was still grumbling to himself about the traffic, and Sherlock waited, drumming his fingers on his leg the way John had – had he picked that up from John, or was it the other way around? – until a response came in.
Was asked to do autopsy. Her name was Amy Wilmot. John
Mycroft had wanted John to do the autopsy? John was a field surgeon, not a histopathologist, and had probably not performed an autopsy since medical school; certainly the rigours of the battlefield would have left him little doubt as to how most of his patients had been injured or killed. He thought of Anthea – Amy – under John's capable hands, and understood that Mycroft needed John's steadfastness, his honesty, his thoroughness. But damn Mycroft for not considering that the last thing John needed was to have one more person he'd known lying dead and beyond help in front of him.
Because John would follow through and not think of the cost to himself. He would get home tonight, worn to the bone and still sit with the newspaper propped up in front of his unseeing eyes or with the flickering light of the telly dancing across his lined face, and think that he was a failure because nothing he did could undo the death he'd seen.
Damn Mycroft. Tracking Moriarty. See you at home. SH
Dr. Sylvia Lasher's office was located in a small private hospital that had office numbers helpfully listed on a notice pinned up in the lobby. He took the lift up to the second floor and smiled at the receptionist filling out paperwork. "Dr. Susan Diller?" he asked, using the time while she frowned and consulted a typed list to scan the office; Dr. Lasher kept her files in locked cabinets behind the front desk, so all he'd need was a diversion and two minutes with his lock picks.
The suspicious curl to her mouth stayed present even as she grudgingly spoke. "Three floors up."
"Sorry, must have got turned around," he said, playing apologetic. "Stairs back that way?" He pointed to the dimly lit doorway behind her. She nodded, already uninterested in the conversation. It would be child's play to exit through that door, watch for her to take a tea break, and slip in for the files. He headed for the door, hearing the lift behind him stop and open, and footsteps trail into the office. The receptionist tapped at her keyboard and said, "Hello, Mrs. Forrester. Did you reschedule Peter's appointment? I don't seem to have you in today's calendar."
He crouched behind the door so no stray glance would see him through the small glass panel. Peter Forrester was in the office at this moment, unexpected; something was not right with the situation. As he pulled on his leather gloves, he could hear Peter's mother sounding flustered as she said that her secretary had passed along a message from the doctor, asking for an emergency session.
"Come with me, then," the receptionist said, sturdy court shoes clicking against the linoleum floor. Sherlock seized the opportunity, counting on the voices coming from down the hall to alert him when their return was imminent. Peter's file was thick for being so new, and he tucked it into the back of his waistband before easing the drawer of the filing cabinet shut with a click that could barely be heard over the sound of the lift grinding to a halt. He made swiftly for the door again, ducking down once more; he could just barely see a large man in a long leather coat entirely inappropriate to the season step into the office. The man had the gait of someone balancing an unwieldy weight on his person, and Sherlock frowned, mind running through the possibilities.
The man must have heard the voices of the doctor, the receptionist, and Mrs. Forrester, because he headed down that hallway sporting a determined grin. One hand reached under his coat to pull free a large double-action semi-automatic pistol.
Three defenceless women and a child were the only ones waiting for him, and yet he emptied the magazine and the chambered bullet into them; the man clearly enjoyed his work. Sherlock unbent enough to look through the glass panel in the door. The man whistled as he walked back from his executions, flicking a brass-plated lighter, empty pistol stuffed carelessly down the front of his trousers so that the butt rested against his navel. Sherlock couldn't see him once he walked behind the receptionist's desk, but could deduce from the scrabbling sounds that the man was pawing through the desk drawers for the keys to the filing cabinet. Surely that was what the lighter was for; the man was missing all outward signs of a smoker.
The light he could see through the glass grew suddenly yellower, and he knew the files had been set on fire. The man must have been looking for something else, because it took a few more minutes for him to emerge back into Sherlock's line of sight. Once he was there, Sherlock could see that the man rather resembled Moriarty, only a Moriarty a head taller who'd been addicted to steroids for some time; they had the same close-cropped dark hair and fishbelly-pale skin.
Still whistling, the man stepped onto the lift and disappeared behind its closing doors.
Sherlock wrenched open the door and ran down the hallway toward the small heap of bodies. He pulled them clear, then couldn't remember if he should have kept them immobile in case one of them was still, improbably, alive. Peter was small for his age, but looked especially so when surrounded by the outflung limbs of three full-grown women, and Sherlock squatted down again, automatically pocketing the three closest spent shell-casings, wondering what secrets he'd held in his infantile brain.
"I was hoping you'd be here," he heard from behind him, and he spun too quickly to keep his balance; that only made it easier for the leather-coated man to introduce the butt of his pistol to Sherlock's temple.
He drifted back to consciousness as he was being dragged across the linoleum floor toward the receptionist's desk; he didn't dare open his eyes, but he could feel the heat of the fire, still burning in the filing cabinet.
The man evidently couldn't read the six small signs Sherlock couldn't help making, and had no idea that his victim was now conscious. "I'd have liked to be able to hear your last words, you cunt," the man said as he arranged Sherlock to his satisfaction, fingers warm whenever they touched Sherlock's skin. "I know what that would've been worth to the boss. Not to mention that the lads had a pool going, a challenge to see who could knock you off."
A soft, unsteady stream of cool liquid hit Sherlock's face – was the man spitting on him? Crying? "Fuck all," the man cursed, fumbling in his pocket for his mobile; "better get this done quick."
Quickly, Sherlock corrected in his mind, then listened with disbelief as the man stood and walked toward the lift. He dared to open his eyes to slits and saw the sprinkler above him sending out a weak spray in response to the blaze. He closed them again when the man placed a call. "Moran. Yeah, he showed up at the brat's shrink's office. He won't be getting up soon," the man reported, and Sherlock could tell from his voice that he'd swung around to take one last look. "Just give me five minutes to get clear."
The lift doors opened and the man – Moran – stepped inside. Moran disappeared and Sherlock scrambled up, grimacing at the trail of blood he'd left when he'd been dragged along the floor, and found the explosives lined neatly up behind the receptionist's desk. He mopped at his seeping temple with his scarf and then dropped the whole soaking mess as he ran for the stairs. He'd made it down nearly three flights of concrete steps by the time the blast shook him off his feet; he saved himself from another head injury only by clutching at the metal railing with desperate hands.
He could hear the stampede above him as people tried to flee the building. Huddled securely in the basement, he let himself think. Moriarty had manoeuvred Peter into being at the office for his pet assassin, who had clearly also been told to expect Sherlock. How could Moriarty have known that he was revisiting the idea of the pips? Had there been an armed man sent to dispatch each of the surviving hostages, with orders to kill Sherlock if he showed up as well? Was it possible that Lestrade –? No, surely not; Sherlock could not believe that Lestrade would betray him. And yet, if there was an informant, he had to know.
Mycroft would be able to find out, quickly and effectively. Sherlock grimaced as he called his brother, anticipating several minutes of unpleasant, vaguely threatening conversation; he got a shock when it was her voice instead: "The number you are trying to reach cannot be accessed from your number. Goodbye." There was the faintest undercurrent of amusement in Amy's tone, as if she'd recorded the message while thinking of all the callers, from royalty on down, that it would frustrate.
He shook his head – mistake, every movement was painful – and tried again. He tried a text but it wouldn't go through, and the email he sent bounced back immediately with an error message claiming that no such address existed. So Mycroft had meant it when he'd sworn to cut Sherlock out of his life. Sherlock snarled his fury that it was happening now, on these terms. He had a madman to catch and a flatmate to protect, and Mycroft wouldn't lift a finger. Fine, he raged, I can do this without you. He walked out of the building on wobbly legs, blending easily into the crowd of people who'd been evacuated from it, knowing Moran would have stayed just long enough to witness the explosion ripping apart the quiet hum of an afternoon.
"Faster!" he snarled at the cabbie, who shot another nervous glance at him via the rear-view mirror. For Moriarty to know about his plan to track the pips, he had to have surveillance on John or the flat; Sherlock had already checked his own mobile and person for bugs. He had to get back to 221B and go through it with a fine-toothed comb, then subject John to the same.
Sherlock approached the building from two streets away and took the most circuitous route he could muster to get inside. He crept past Mrs. Hudson's door, the sound of her blaring telly coming through clearly, and got as far as the front hall when a scraping sound startled him. It was only the post being pushed through the slot in the door, and when he looked down, one cream-coloured envelope with John inked across the front was all that lay on the floor. He pulled it open and read:
Dear heart –
You didn't want him alive, did you?
Moriarty must have written it once Moran had alerted him that Sherlock had been eliminated – the ink was slightly smeared and smelt fresh – and it was likely Moran had been allowed to deliver it himself, as a reward. Such haste on Moriarty's part meant that the tone was less carefully considered, that the twisted affection evident in every word was most likely sincere. And it was all aimed at John, "dear heart" all on his own and also the "heart" made dear by being Sherlock's.
Sherlock tucked the flap back into the envelope and tossed the letter back down to the floor. If Moriarty believed him to be dead, he had an unprecedented advantage; there would be no hindrances to his work, no more of Moriarty's goons sent to dog his steps. He had to act quickly to capitalise on the situation. There was no time to scour the flat for bugs, and no way he could stay at 221B without attracting Moriarty's notice. Moriarty was expending his energy in gloating, not covering his tracks, and he hadn't let Moran stick around to kill John. If Sherlock was going to make his move, it had to be now.
He let himself into 221C, grabbed his laptop and the locker key he had taped to the back of the stained mirror perched on the mantel, and took off. He had work to do.
The wad of bank notes had been significantly fatter in his memory, but Sherlock resolutely divided it up and stuffed a bit into each front pocket of his jeans and thick hooded sweatshirt. The tattered duffel bag, bulging with his trousers, shirt, coat, and brogues, went back into the bus station locker and his lock picks and the locker key into a small zippered compartment of his laptop bag. He kept the hood of his sweatshirt up as he hunched to make himself smaller and went in search of Jeannie.
He didn't know if Mycroft still had active surveillance on him – he had no trouble imagining that Mycroft might make himself impregnable while still keeping tabs on Sherlock – but surely Mycroft would have felt the presence of another spider in his intricate web had Moriarty attempted to monitor London on the same scale. Sherlock knew how to transform himself simply by projecting emotion, allowing the fabricated history of a different persona to be made legible on his skin, his clothes, his attitude. But such subtle shifts were of no use now. Mycroft and Moriarty were both too wrapped up in schemes to be watching the cameras at all times; it was their minions, instructed only to look for a head of dark curls, a straight spine, or a long wool coat, whom he had to fool, and he would fail unless he altered those apparent fundamentals.
He filched a pair of scissors and a pack of gum from a dingy chemist's shop close to where Jeannie had last kipped. Finding her without making enquiries was simple enough; all he had to do was walk past the nearby primary schools, knowing Jeannie would be looking in all the children's faces for her younger sister, who had to be long dead if Jeannie's disjointed ramblings were put into any semblance of logical order.
Even with his hood up and his unfamiliar attire, she recognised him instantly. That was all the confirmation he needed that a more drastic alteration to his appearance was a necessity, and he stripped off the sweatshirt and handed her the scissors. Clipped curls fell around him as he crouched in an alley, shivering slightly in his T-shirt. "No one can know I'm still here," he said peremptorily. "As far as everyone knows, I'm dead."
"Yessir," she said automatically, still shearing away. "Then this won't do."
"You just look like yourself, 'cept you've got a haircut. You wanna look different, you gotta change the colour. I was a redhead the summer I turned sixteen, made my skin look like fresh cream, and the boys came from miles around to see me. They said they were dreaming of Jeannie with the bright red hair."
"Yes, fine," he said, deleting the personal anecdote; Jeannie was useful, but she was far from important. He dug a banknote out from his pocket. "Get whatever we can use to dye my hair, a set of earbuds, and a new SIM card for my mobile. Whatever change is left over you can keep."
Her eyes got wide at the sight of the bill. That would ensure her swift return. She scurried off and he popped a piece of gum in his mouth, chewing like a cow working at her cud, imitating the manner of the brainless youth he now appeared to be.
If he had to wait, he would at least make good use of the time. He pulled Peter Forrester's file from his laptop bag and sat on a pile of flattened cardboard boxes to read.
Sherlock cherished no delusions about how long the mess at the hospital would take to sort out; all sorts of experts would have to be called in before the Met zeroed in on Sylvia Lasher's office as the primary site of the explosion. There was no telling if the bodies had stayed intact enough for identification, and since Peter – a newly chronic bedwetter since his ordeal – had not been expected at the office, no police would yet be at his home, searching for clues.
Sherlock smiled to himself, popped a fresh piece of gum in his mouth, and set off for Westminster, to the address in Peter's file. The street was short, made entirely of two rows of what would no doubt be called charming flats, with nowhere to loiter inconspicuously. He turned back to a larger street to find a tobacconist and buy himself a packet of twenty convincing reasons for sitting on the scrupulously clean steps of the building next to Number Eleven. He allowed wreaths of satisfying smoke to disguise his unfortunately memorable features.
The earbuds, plugged uselessly into his mobile, were enough to fool the people who walked by him into believing he couldn't hear every word of their inane conversations. But it was the wardrobe and the new hue of his hair that Sherlock credited for the lack of recognition on Moran's soused face as he staggered by Sherlock to get into Number Eleven, key already out. The stark near-black and near-white that Sherlock was accustomed to seeing in the mirror had been replaced by reddish hair and skin that looked pinker and warmer without dark curls juxtaposed against it. Moran, even filled to the brim with whisky, should have felt at least a tug of familiarity, but it was so hard to find a mind capable of performing at an optimal level these days.
Sherlock grinned, pleased that his chain of logical deductions had proved sound to the last link. Moran's importance within Moriarty's organisation was borne out by the choice of Peter Forrester as one of the hostages. Moran had used his own neighbour's child in Moriarty's escalating challenge to Sherlock, and had later killed the "brat" and his mother with evident glee. Moriarty had called on him at the last minute to supply him with a hostage and Moran had provided, cementing his status as Moriarty's most trusted lieutenant.
But Moriarty's linchpin should have killed Sherlock with a bullet instead of trusting to unconsciousness and a blast to finish him off, because Sherlock was now in a position to strike the first blow against Moriarty almost without lifting a finger. Those few shell-casings he'd retrieved from the doctor's office had Moran's fingerprints on them, after all, and it would be beyond easy to plant them, along with Peter's file, somewhere in the drunken lout's flat; there they would be found by the Met, acting on an anonymous tip from someone who would be dismissed as an underling in Moriarty's organisation, spurred on by envy for Moran's position. He'd heard from Moran's own mouth that "the lads" would be envious that he'd been the one to finish Sherlock off and impress Moriarty; no state more conducive for betrayal and jockeying for position could be imagined.
Sherlock's fingers were steady as he swapped the SIM card in his mobile for the one Jeannie had bought. He gave Moran an hour to fall into a heavy, drunken slumber before breaking in and planting the evidence. Moran's stertorous respiration was loud enough to cover nearly any noise, but Sherlock prided himself on being swift and silent. The door to the flat above – the Forrester flat – opened and closed quietly just before Sherlock finished his task, presumably Mr. Forrester returning home from work. Sherlock took one last look at Moran's flat and made his anonymous call to the Met.
Full dark found Sherlock in a flat two streets away that was supposedly being renovated, but insufficient funding meant that workers hadn't been by in over a week. He slept sitting up, his back against the one complete wall, and in the morning, he was pleasantly surprised to see Donovan leading a bleary-eyed Moran off in handcuffs as Lestrade restrained Mr. Forrester. The Met team all looked dishevelled and worn and not really grasping the significance of the prize Sherlock had handed them, but it would have been too much, really, to expect comprehension as well as efficiency.
There was nothing like impersonating a disgruntled layabout to get all London to walk by without a glance, Sherlock noted with deep satisfaction, radiating perfectly feigned resentment of all the pleasure-seekers swarming through the public gardens. Even when he settled himself in what was clearly someone else's "patch," a prime location for him because it was a Wi-Fi hotspot covered by none of bloody Mycroft's cameras, he was left alone.
As he couldn't venture anywhere near Baker Street for the present because of those same bloody cameras, he'd just piggyback on Mycroft's surveillance of the flat and determine when John was likely to leave to go to work or the shops or to run some other errand; he should be able to find a dead spot in which he could speak to John.
Looking around the bright gardens, he wondered if John would recognise all the flowers blooming in front of him before shaking himself out of useless speculation. Sherlock thought back to Amy's avid eyes on her Blackberry, her sure hands exposing and disabling means of surveillance; considered everything he'd learnt on the Milverton case, the Rucastle case, and others; and set to work.
The audio came through half a second before the video did, and the sound of Mycroft's voice worming its way into him nearly made him rip out the earbuds plugged into the laptop. "What might I do for you, John?" Mycroft was saying, making himself at home in Sherlock's chair in the flat. If he expected John to recognise that the umbrella whose point he was driving into Mrs. Hudson's carpet was not his usual, he was going to be sorely disappointed; John clearly had no eyes for any of Mycroft's grandstanding. No doubt Mycroft had selected the black-on-black pattern as a token of mourning, though Sherlock noted disgustedly that Mycroft was dry-eyed and calm-voiced, his accessory the only outward sign indicating that anything was different. His mourning might be genuine, but it seemed it was also shallow.
Though Mycroft's poses and state of mind hardly mattered. Not when John looked so dreadful, hair disordered like he'd run his hands through it repeatedly, and somehow hollow-looking too, as if the sunlight pouring through the windows could cut right through him. "I –"
Mycroft, the great interfering pillock, interrupted. "Dr. Watson, pardon my curiosity, but should you not be at the surgery now?"
John got only halfway through the gesture that he liked to think shut Sherlock up, in which the side of his hand sliced the air. "I . . . I told them not to expect me." His voice cracked uncertainly and he stood next to his chair like he couldn't remember its purpose.
"You've quit Dr. Sawyer's surgery?" Mycroft asked, looking up at John, eyebrows raised just enough to indicate curiosity, not enough to cause a single wrinkle in his brow.
"Tell me it isn't true," John said, not bothering to answer; "tell me the shreds of fabric Lestrade found at the scene of the explosion in Westminster weren't from Sherlock's scarf, that they weren't stained with Sherlock's blood. Tell me you've got cameras on Sherlock right now, and he faked his death and is tracking Moriarty and either charming the pants off the hostages or bullying their friends and neighbours like the git he is . . ." His voice trailed off leadingly, waiting to be interrupted.
"I've no surveillance on Sherlock; I do not find it worth my time to try to protect –"
Mycroft cut himself off when John buckled, landing half in the seat. "Doctor?"
John pulled Moriarty's last note from under his seat cushion and thrust it at Mycroft, who took it as if humouring a child in need of gentle correction. Sherlock felt his nails cutting into his palms as he watched John watching Mycroft, but Mycroft was too seasoned an actor to let anything slip; Sherlock couldn't tell if his apparent death affected Mycroft less than Amy's had, or if his brother simply did not believe the supposed proof that John was offering. "What is this, John?"
"It's the latest letter from Moriarty. Only this one was addressed to me." John was sweating now, earnestness and desperation pouring off him. He got up and limped to the mantelpiece, where the other notes were gathering dust. He swept them up and held them out to Mycroft. "All the rest were to your brother. And they were all true."
As he read the letters swiftly, Mycroft's face finally betrayed him; Sherlock could interpret the lines it settled into as fury, even if John could not. "Sherlock has known for months, apparently –" Mycroft made a production of rubbing his fingertips together to evaluate the dust "– that Moriarty was back, wreaking havoc on the citizens of our city, and he chose to treat the matter as a game, a means to alleviate his boredom. I tried reaching him time and again to offer my help and to warn him of the possible consequences to himself and to you, but he refused to listen. If Moriarty proved to be too much for him, then I am sorry for your loss."
John could not have looked more dazed if Mycroft had simply abandoned his genteel pose and clocked him on the head with a brick. "But it can't be –"
"And yet you say that all of these letters, crowing about the death of one person or another, were 'true,'" Mycroft said gently, remorselessly; Sherlock had no idea how it was possible to look at John Watson with such pitiless eyes. "Where, may I ask, is the one detailing the murder of Amy Wilmot?"
"We found it," John said, defiant and hopelessly transparent, reminding Mycroft that he'd been Sherlock's ally in all of it, "painted on the wall of a flat."
There was sharpness, a blatant desire to know, in Mycroft's tone. Sherlock recognised the ignorance behind that hunger and knew for certain then that Mycroft had no idea that Sherlock had attempted texts, emails, and voicemails; Mycroft would never have demanded answers from John if he knew he could get them more accurately from Sherlock. "Saying?"
"'Dear Holmes, Tear up your list. Moriarty,'" John recited.
"'Holmes' instead of 'My Dear.' Then I was its intended audience, just as this 'Dear heart' missive was meant for you." Mycroft stood, fussing with his trouser creases. "Sherlock knew that –"
"No!" John protested. "It took us a few days to piece it together, and once we did, we still didn't know her – her name was Amy." John held out a beseeching hand. "Please. Check all the surveillance footage you're stockpiling – we didn't know."
Mycroft declined to answer that. "I am sorry, John; it seems we are brothers in bereavement." That was needlessly cruel, Sherlock thought, watching John blanch and fall silent at the misuse of the word brothers. Then he wondered if Mycroft was at last speaking the truth, that his love for Amy had been something akin to what steadfast, whole-hearted John evidently felt for Sherlock.
The revelations were too much, and Sherlock felt sick, knowing that he couldn't let John know he was alive, not if one day of belief had already brought him so low; any change for the better would be interpreted – correctly – by Moriarty that Sherlock was still out there. John would have left him voicemails, voice worn and weary and clinging to hope, pleading for Sherlock to call back, not knowing that Sherlock had destroyed his SIM card because it could be traced. John would have argued with Lestrade that the evidence was inconclusive while the words of Moriarty's taunting note hammered at his brain. John was being hurt by every moment of his absence, but he was no longer a target.
"Amy liked you, you know," Mycroft said more gently, interrupting Sherlock's thoughts, as he watched John struggling to speak. "I'll have a word with the surgery –"
"No!" John burst out.
"He won't be back," Mycroft returned softly. "Either he is dead or he has decided that you too are just a piece in his great game, ripe for the sacrifice. There are no other options that I can see. And you are far too good a doctor to let your talents go to waste." He ignored John shaking his head. "You would be invaluable at a trauma centre, John." Sherlock hated how possessively Mycroft's voice caressed that single syllable. "The battlefield still has a place for you."
Sherlock tensed and waited, registering the tightness of Mycroft's fingers around the handle of his umbrella, until John bowed his head in acceptance. Mycroft merely inclined his and walked out of the flat. Sherlock could not have blinked if his life had depended upon it; he watched John shake, silently, shoulders vibrating with grief and tension.
John walked woodenly, unevenly, to the kitchen and got himself a glass of water. Sherlock watched his throat work as he swallowed it down. The earbuds were not good enough for him to tell if the glass had merely cracked or shattered outright when John's nerveless fingers dropped it in the sink, but Sherlock could hear every hitching breath of John's agonisingly voiceless sobs.
John looked so small, far from the camera – it had to be on one of the bookshelves, he'd worked it out from the angle – and all alone in the flat. He came back to the living room and gathered Moriarty's letters, painstakingly matching each note to the proper envelope as if it mattered, then set them in a neat stack back on the mantelpiece. Sherlock's breath caught in his throat as John's steady hand picked up the skull to reveal the pink mobile he must have hidden underneath it. "No," Sherlock said, as if John could hear him, as if John would listen to anything he had to say ever again. "Don't – John –"
Head bent, John considered the mobile – a link to Moriarty, a route to the vengeance John was clearly burning to exact.
Sherlock tore the earbuds away, ready to run back to Baker Street to stop John from a suicide mission, but John abruptly straightened and frowned; setting the mobile down on top of the mantel, he disappeared from view. Sherlock fumbled at the earbuds, trying desperately to cram them back in. He caught a low murmur of voices, John's tone indicating surprise at the very least, more likely shock. Two sets of footsteps sounded on the stairs, and when John came back into view, there was someone beside him: a woman with a long bright plait like a rope of fire. Anna Frelinghuysen, Sherlock thought automatically, and watched her fold John in her arms like she had every right, watched John cling helplessly to her, and watched her tears darken John's shirt until his good shoulder looked more grievously injured than the one she had operated on.