"We'll solve the question of the corpse's nationality later, John; we still have the question of what could have killed both men to answer." He led the way to his bedroom and closed the door behind them to keep out the noise from the television; Irene was watching QI, having professed a great love for the host, some awkward-looking man with a crooked nose. He smoothed down the bedclothes hastily in order to let John sit at the foot of the bed. He climbed in and pressed his back against the solid slab of his headboard.
"There weren't any marks on either corpse that indicated suffocation, strangulation, poison, venom, or trauma," John said, ticking points off on his fingers.
"Is it possible they were injected with something?"
"We should have seen an injection site," John objected.
"We had severely limited time with both corpses, and injections are often designed to be difficult to spot."
"I doubt Molly will find any such site during the autopsy," John said firmly. "What could they possibly have been injected with that would have caused instantaneous, painless death? Could you have concocted anything this effective in your lab?"
So John was thinking of him as a chemist and not as an addict. "Even air, if properly injected, can be fatal," Sherlock reminded him, smiling despite himself.
"Gas embolisms are tricky things, and for it to have worked perfectly both times is really pushing it."
"Maybe several people were attacked and only these two died."
"And they all stood still to allow their killer to find the best spot to inject oxygen into their bloodstream?" John shook his head and looked up at the periodic table hanging above his bed. Sherlock had had that copy for several years, a gift from Victor Trevor, enabler extraordinaire; it was too useful to throw away, and he'd never got around to replacing it with one unladen with memories impossible to delete. "Wait – not a poison. Something natural that the body could not process."
"Such as?" Sherlock pressed. He'd seen chlorine gas film over its victims' eyes while painting their skin in dark and violent hues of green and yellow shading to black. He'd determined the use of thallium in a case in which the victim suffered hair loss and tingling in the extremities due to the associated nerve damage. "The body has ways of telling the careful observer what it underwent."
"Not if it's something the body has no defences against," John said, looking electrified by his own cleverness, for which Sherlock could hardly blame him. "Like nitrogen – inert nitrogen gas."
"The body requires oxygen."
"But the body doesn't check to make sure the gas it's inhaling contains oxygen; the defences are on the other side, making sure that it exhales carbon dioxide, which inhalation of nitrogen still allows. The body has no idea it's in danger until it's dead ."
"No panic," Sherlock mused.
"No muss, no fuss," John agreed. "Not that we've proved any of this."
"Molly will find it if you direct her search."
"Then you can figure out where these men were held that could contain nitrogen instead of oxygen, and who killed them. I'm back on shift tomorrow."
"I'd remembered. Good night, John."
"Sleep, would you? As a favour to me," John said, uncurling his legs and sliding to the edge of the bed. "I'll send Molly an email first thing in the morning."
Sally proved herself capable of original thought, researching uses for nitrogen gas and coming up with electronics factories and motor workshops; according to her research, nitrogen smothered stray sparks that oxygen would have coaxed into blossoming.
"Thank you," she said formally after sharing the information with him and hearing him out about the ways in which stripes differed by continent. "You and John have been really helpful, and he was right about Molly as well. But I should be able to handle it from here."
He eyed her for long moments before offering his hand. "That's it, Donovan."
"What?" she asked, involuntarily shaking his hand.
"That step Lestrade never takes. Asserting your independence –"
"The boss is a great copper," she said warningly.
"He has considerable skill and decent instincts. But he's also found a shortcut. He's not wrong; more people would undoubtedly die if we waited for him to solve every case instead of calling me in, but the point is he doesn't take a crack at the cases first anymore. You'll be DI by the end of the summer and you'll beat him to DCI."
"He's not ambitious," she demurred.
"No," he agreed. "But you can be." Before she could smile or blush or otherwise ruin what was a perfectly professional moment, he turned, calling over his shoulder, "You might want to check into the birth records of your victim. I'm fairly certain he had, to borrow John's egregious parlance, a 'long-lost evil twin.'"
"Don't – are you serious?" she called.
"Identical twins have different fingerprints, as they're caused by position in the womb rather than genetic factors ."
"That explains exactly nothing."
"The message inked on the fingers was intended for someone with access to the British government, but I've no doubt that when you run the fingerprints, you'll find your corpse is American. I am merely suggesting one explanation for the discrepancy."
"The more outlandish your story, the easier it is to believe you, somehow," she said grudgingly, then waved him off.
She was really quite entertaining, after all. He grinned at the thought that darted into his head; it would be most interesting to see what she and Mycroft made of each other.
Irene emerged from the soundproofed room into Sherlock's bedroom, a thick score bending her wrists taut and pale, and Sherlock approved once again of the utility of John's besotted gift; though it had seemed like the merest scrap of silk, the dressing-gown was tremendously useful as a barometer. He had seen it ride up high enough on Irene's burnished thighs to allow him to observe the marks of John's mouth and teeth, explaining the aura of satisfaction emanating from the pair of them. It had parted slightly as she'd held John's red-rubber water bottle, in its ridiculous scarlet wool cosy, to her abdomen, warning him that her body was tender and her energy low. And now, he could see, from the way the thin material clung to her, hugging her breasts and belly, that she was carrying John's child; there was no real "bump," but she had taken on an unaccustomed solidity evident despite the layers of cloth.
Her free hand fluttered unmistakeably in front of her abdomen, indicating that her nerves had been wrought to an unsustainable pitch, and he supposed that she needed assurance more objective than John's that this pregnancy would come to term. He dragged his eyes up from her belly to find her looking thoughtfully at him.
"You know, don't you?"
"I haven't deduced your due date, if that's any consolation," he offered.
She tossed the score on his bed and sat at the foot of it, just where John had solved the Cicero murders. "What are you doing?" he asked, confused by the way she simply sat without making any demands or searching out his gaze.
"I just – need a minute where I'm not on my own and not with John," she said nonsensically. "To feel the reality of it, you know?"
She laughed a little then, nearly rueful. "I'm so happy when I'm with him, that I kind of don't trust myself around him. It's like I've been drugged with joy."
Sherlock reared back as if she'd slapped him. Irene was the one who should be keeping the blog, if she could so precisely express what he felt whenever John smiled at him or spoke the word "love" so easily, looking at him unflinchingly.
"But I need to think about a baby in my life, not just in ours."
It was eminently reasonable, he supposed; he certainly had no intention of stopping anyone whose stated goal was to think. He started to rise, then recollected that she'd specified that she did not seek solitude. "What do you need?" he asked.
She tugged him down beside her, and they lay, side by side, contemplating the ceiling. He could start pinning codes up there, to give himself something to puzzle over during the long nights when he tossed and turned, trying in vain to lull his mind to sleep. Irene breathed quietly next to him, her pure profile looking like a classical carving. Then she turned slightly to face him, and the distinctive curve of her cheek, something that had become familiar in the long months since she'd entered his life by way of John's, stood out against the dark bedclothes. A glint of gold shone from her earring. When his hand brushed against hers, he honestly did not know if that was an accident or deliberate, but he did not pull away as her fingers curled round his.
"Everything will change," she said quietly, then repeated it over and over again, an innocuous statement changed to a clarion call of promise and wonder by the power of that voice that John loved.
"Sherlock, dear, do you have anything on at the mo?" Mrs. Hudson asked, cornering him in the flat while John and Irene were at the movies, taking in the filmed version of Irene's performance as Eurydice; she'd protested that John shouldn't have to sit through it twice, that she needed to critique her own performance while experiencing the production as one of the audience, but John had been adamant. He'd also been exhausted from pulling too many shifts, and it was even odds whether he'd fall asleep inside the hushed darkness of the theatre.
"I do," he equivocated; he'd do her a favour if she needed it, but wasn't willing to be lent out to casual acquaintances. "Vital experiments," he added when she went to the kitchen to fill the kettle and turn it on.
She took the implied reproof quietly but betrayed herself by putting too much sugar in his tea, either out of carelessness or a desire to "sweeten him up." He sipped it anyway, as the heat of it was welcome on a damp evening. "What is it, Mrs. Hudson?"
She brightened perceptibly, set her teacup down, and turned to face him, though her knees were still pointing off to one side. "It's Loretta's married ones."
"What, still?" he asked, surprised; she'd last spoken to him about them months ago.
"It turns out Roger's father was killed in a burglary gone wrong – there had been several burglaries by the same gang, I think, enough for the police to know who was to blame, and, of course, murder was worse than theft."
"So at last they stepped up their efforts?" Sherlock asked dryly.
"Yes, of course, but when they finally caught the burglars, it turned out that they'd been in Brussels that same night, stealing something else, so it couldn't have been them who killed Roger's father, poor man, so now there's talk of exhuming him and reopening the case, and Roger's just beside himself, and the police won't let him come to take his mum away from there – she's still had to live in that house, poor lady, the sister has only a small flat and hasn't room for her – and the whole thing's in a tangle."
"The Belgian police do not seem any more capable than our Met," he observed dryly, "but surely there is no reason to suppose they will not at last stumble across the truth, even if the trail has gone cold?"
"I'm sure Roger would be glad of your help," Mrs. Hudson said firmly, indicating that she and Mrs. Turner had made up their minds and he and Roger would be chivvied together like reluctant primary-school pupils at a play area. He did not have a means of escape calibrated to the situation – all of his traps were too elaborate to spring on an elderly woman of no particular malice – but he held out a faint hope that Lestrade would rescue him with a well-timed text.
"Very well," he said finally. "Shall we?"
He followed her down the stairs, down the front steps, and then up the steps to the front door of 219, which was in better nick than their own, its brass knocker shining from all of Mrs. Turner's devoted polishings. Mrs. Turner had, he saw when she opened the door, a chair so placed as to be able to see both out the window and anyone coming up the steps.
"Sherlock's here to help," Mrs. Hudson said before Mrs. Turner could get a word in edgewise.
"Thank you, Helen. I'll take you up," Mrs. Turner said, but Mrs. Hudson was determined not to be left out of the proceedings she had helped to engineer and tucked her hand into the crook of his elbow.
Mrs. Turner was either scrupulous about respecting her tenants' privacy or eager to appear so; the former, Sherlock concluded, taking in the lack of surprise at her knock on the face of the man who opened the B-flat door. Sherlock had seen him on the street and, thanks to Mrs. Hudson's formless narrative, had a name to put to the face.
"Danh? Sherlock Holmes. I understand you and your husband might need the services of a consulting detective." From the squeeze Mrs. Hudson gave his arm, he knew she was pleased he'd opted for a kind of stately formality.
"Oh! I hadn't realised you'd be able to help out on an international matter," Danh said, holding the door open for them. The flat had been decorated by someone who saw no point in hiding his wealth or, Sherlock thought, his bad taste. There was black leather furniture, glass-and-chrome tables, and sisal floor matting. To his eye, it had all the charm and warmth of a dentist's waiting-room. John would have told him to say something nice, and pointed out the tidiness of the space as a model to emulate, but Sherlock was doing them a favour, not the other way round, so he kept silent.
"One minute," Danh said, retreating to the bedroom to fetch his husband.
They were dressed rather alike, both in khaki trousers and Oxfords, though Roger's clothes were clearly bespoke and Danh's socks were of a hue calculated to make a Savile Row tailor weep bitterly. Danh's shirtsleeves were rolled up to the elbow, exposing solid forearms the colour of Mrs. Hudson's milky tea, and he returned to the kitchen, where he was preparing dinner. Roger beckoned them to sit.
He had a ruddy complexion to match his strong, husky build and an incongruously pointed nose that looked far too delicate for his face. He spoke English easily but with a rhythm that marked it as a second or even third – definitely third – language.
"My father was killed," he said, "and it's only for my mother's sake that I'm involved." He smiled mirthlessly. "I shock you," he announced, though Sherlock was emotive as a stone. "My father threw me out once he realised I was homosexual; fortunately, he discovered my sexuality after I'd attained my majority and had funds of my own."
"Earned or inherited?" Sherlock queried.
"Both, though mostly the latter. I've deviated a little from my family's line of work, as I'm a banker and the men of the Scheldt family have long been in the diamond trade."
"In Antwerp?" Sherlock asked. There was serious money in Antwerp's diamonds, and the police's continued attention became clearer.
"Just so. Our house is in Kessel."
"A likely target for thieves?"
"Our name is fairly well-known, though I would think that most people would be able to distinguish between 'working in the diamond industry' and 'keeping diamonds in a readily accessible and unguarded location within the house.'"
"It is possible you're giving the criminal element entirely too much credit," Sherlock said coolly; he preferred dispassionate clients, but there was something about Roger Scheldt that was not entirely to his liking.
"Perhaps. In any case , my mother said she was in bed when she heard a scream and she went to investigate, as Krista – my sister – was spending the night at the house, and she thought my father was still out at a business dinner. She went downstairs to find the front door open and my father lying dead in front of the fireplace in the main parlour. It looked like he'd struck his head against the mantelpiece. Krista was next to him in a dead faint. My mother revived her and called the police. Based on what Krista told them, they went away satisfied that the killers were the burglars who had struck in a different part of Antwerp every week. But now that they've caught them, it seems those burglars must have been in Brussels. What does it matter who it was? Those burglars, some other burglars – some pair of them killed my father and left my mother too agitated to sleep."
"What did Krista say she saw?" Mrs. Hudson asked, leaning forward eagerly. For all her talk about decency, she enjoyed hearing about the crimes he investigated.
"She was up late and heard my father's car approaching the house and saw him alight with two companions, whom she assumed to be colleagues he'd met at the dinner. She wasn't particularly in the mood for a lecture about how she was wasting her life" – Roger's lip curled at the phrase – "so she went quietly to the next room, which was why she could see and hear everything that happened. My father always had several bottles of wine to hand, and he opened one for himself and his colleagues. They toasted and chatted, but after a few minutes, the two men – one tall and blond, the other taller and brunet – started asking about anti-theft precautions his firm was taking, marking diamonds and so forth. My father got drunker and drunker, and knocked into the table with the glasses. He said he'd shout for my mother to clean up the mess, but the men drew knives and ordered him to open his safe. When my father lunged for one of them, he was pushed back, and he cracked his head and fell down dead. They ran out of the house and Krista, going to check on him, screamed and fainted on the spot."
A more stitched-together story Sherlock had not heard for quite some time, though it was clear that Roger believed it; did ordinary people have no common sense or the least bit of curiosity? He'd been spoilt by long association with John, who would have frowned at three separate points in that recitation, even if he couldn't put his finger on the exact weaknesses of the story. Burglars with the patience to lull a victim into drunkenness, who not only had no fear of showing their faces to their victim or concern that his inebriation might hinder his ability to open the safe they wanted to clear, but left themselves no means of escape? Flatly impossible.
And yet, the sister had certainly witnessed something that had made her scream. And she had known enough of the burglars' descriptions to point the police in their direction.
"Who is handling the investigation?" he demanded.
"The Antwerp police," Roger said slowly, shifting so that the light caught on the last few strands of his thinning yellow hair.
"Has your mother or sister provided the name of the detective in charge?" he tried again.
"No, but I have an email from one of them, asking me to provide certain information," Roger said, scrolling through his inbox on his mobile.
"Insurance information, number of years in the area, if I had been back – François le Villard , that is his name."
Sherlock sat back, considering the case as it stood. He could be in Antwerp tomorrow if he chose, though he might very well be able to solve the case from his own sofa. Mrs. Hudson placed an insistent elbow in his ribs.
"May I email M. le Villard and offer my services on your behalf?" he asked dutifully.
At last, Roger turned to his husband, who had been quietly stirring something on the hob, silently asking for advice.
"May we let you know tomorrow?" Danh finally asked. For some reason, this released the tension in the room. Mrs. Hudson and Mrs. Turner embraced each other as if they'd been reunited after years apart, and Danh came to stand next to his husband, who reached out for him immediately.
"Certainly," Sherlock said graciously, letting Mrs. Hudson lead the way out of that flat and back into the familiar warmth of 221.
She disappeared into her flat with a "Ta, love," and he climbed the steps to his own. A spot of colour made him turn his head as he walked into the living room and there, at the top of the stairs to John's room, were John and Irene, wrapped tightly in each other's arms and joined at the mouth, limned against the light .
He slept later the next morning than he had meant to; he'd set no alarm, certain Lestrade would text, but no message had come. Sherlock wondered if his words with Sally had made their way to the DI's ear, then decided that Lestrade had a strong enough sense of justice to admit that Sherlock had the right of it.
John and Irene were dashing about the kitchen, sharing a plate of toast slathered with butter and a dark variety of honey and gulping down mugs of tea. "Forgot to set an alarm," John explained.
Irene caught sight of his watch. "Go, or you'll be late." John nodded, folded one last slice of toast in half, and crammed a good portion of it into his mouth. Hands free, he picked up his satchel and collected his phone and left, not bothering to lock the door behind him.
"You can have the rest of the toast, if you like," Irene offered. "I need to shower and get down to the Opera House; I'm helping some of the newer soloists rehearse. They're so young, poor things, and they all look like they can be snapped in two."
"Perhaps you should feed them butter and honey, then," Sherlock said, looking at the cooling swirls on the toast.
"It's not like you don't need the calories, bub," she said, humming lightly to herself as she ran up the steps toward the bathroom.
He sat at the table and checked his email on his phone. Among the unread messages was one from "RogerandDanh." Shared email accounts were even more ghastly than the term "significant other," which covered a multitude of sins. The email appeared to be written in the first-person singular, however, which was a point in its favour.
Dear Sherlock, Roger and I thank you for offering your help and accept gratefully. I wasn't sure if John would be accompanying you – no doubt you've deduced that I read his blog! – and so didn't make any travel arrangements yet. If you can get back to me, I'll be happy to organise your transportation, either by aeroplane or train, whichever you prefer. Roger will make sure the police know to expect you, and you will be able to stay in his mother's house. We know our case is in good hands with you. Thanks, Danh Nguyen.
He could stay and let John and Irene exercise their parental instincts by feeding him up, or he could go to Antwerp and solve a case. And quite likely cause an international incident, the John-voice in his head chimed in. He grinned to himself and wrote Danh back, then got up to pack.
The flight was short, and he felt rested and alert by the time he was dropped off in front of the Scheldt estate, which was just short of palatial. Diamonds had been good for the family coffers. A tall, strikingly slender woman with hair as fair as Roger's opened the door and sized him up; apparently he did not look either Teutonic or Gallic, for she spoke in English with a heavy French accent.
"Yes, may I help you?"
"Je suis ici pour vous aider, Madame," he said after a moment; he had always stayed silent for the first few days of a visit to Grandmère, immersing himself in the language until he was sure he could speak without any mistakes or hesitations. Mireille Scheldt appeared distressed by his words, though when he repeated them in English a good deal of the tension left her frame. "I am here to help you."
"You are Roger's friend, the detective? Famous?"
Neither part of that was true, but he would not get inside the house by parsing her every statement. "Yes."
A tremulous smile bloomed on her face. "So glad I am that he is not here, to be in trouble for his father."
"Indeed," he said, and she beckoned him inside.
The foyer was large and tiled and would carry sound excellently. Her bare feet hardly raised a whisper. He set his overnight bag in one corner and followed her to the parlour where her husband had reportedly met his death. The mantelpiece had evidently once held framed photographs, judging by the crowded cluster of them on a small table near the window; it was now draped with Brussels lace that camouflaged but could not entirely conceal the dark stain eating into the pale marble.
She fussed with the photographs, straightening them out with tiny nudges, and Sherlock came up behind her to view them more closely. Her spine went ramrod straight, visible even under the thin blouse she wore, and she seemed to be holding her breath. He considered her response while casting an eye over the images considered worthy of framing and displaying; all featured a man who looked like a broader-nosed ginger version of Roger, thirty years older: clearly the dead man. He had his arm around his wife's miniscule waist in a few of the shots, always gripping her tightly, painfully even, judging by the fixed quality of her smiles.
He made no comment and did not step away; she was evidently practised in holding herself entirely still, for she did not so much as twitch to betray her discomfort with having him so close.
"And where was Krista seated?" he finally asked.
"In this room," she said, silently leading the way. "This chair has always been a favourite of hers."
The chair in question was an oversized wing chair; if Krista was built along the same starved lines as her mother, she would be able to sit there and remain invisible from the parlour, so long as her legs were tucked up and her height was not greater than five foot ten. There had been no images of either child in the collection in the parlour.
"What does she look like?" he asked, watching the fear dance across Mireille's face. He followed as she turned to lead him out of the room and up the grand staircase. The bullnose was massive, supporting a thick blond banister on each side. Mireille walked precisely in the centre of the staircase, and Sherlock saw a long, pale-blonde hair caught in the ironwork under the left banister, for which he could assign no meaning other than a woman falling down these stairs, banging her head against the grim iron meant to guard her.
A fall that might have been caused by a push, he thought, watching her slender figure, covered from neck to wrists to ankles in thin, dark fabric.
She led him to a room, large as any room in the house must be, but smaller than the others they had passed. It was as white and spartan as an unoccupied cell in a convent, but Mireille opened the third drawer in the bureau and pulled out a box of snapshots. She sifted through them and handed him one of a group of half a dozen girls of about twenty, all grinning and holding wineglasses aloft. He did not need her hesitant finger pointing at the girl in the green dress to identify gingery-blonde Krista, as she was as fragile-looking as her mother, with her brother's pointed nose. He frowned at the image, noting that the dress was both short and sleeveless, which indicated that she had not been subject to the kind of abuse her mother had been, at least not during the time the photograph had been taken.
If her father had come after her on that fateful night and she had pushed him away reflexively, he might well have been surprised into losing his balance and striking his head at a fatal angle; her mother, who hid pictures of her children away like secret treasures, would surely have helped cover up her deed. How had the local police failed to put the pieces together?
"I must contact M. le Villard, to let him know I have arrived," he said.
"Yes," she said, eyes downcast.
Le Villard did not come himself. It was his supervisor, a M. Lescaut – interesting, that the police of Dutch-speaking Antwerp had Francophones in positions of authority – who appeared, very much aware of his more exalted position and eager to fend off any criticisms Sherlock might make; their meeting roused Sherlock's temper from Lescaut's opening gambit, which was to throw a wrench in the works.
"The burglars might not have been in Brussels after all. We cannot trace what they are meant to have stolen, as no one has come forward to make a complaint."
"That simply indicates that the victims cannot do so without some questions being asked of them."
"Likely the burglars burgled someone holding stolen goods," he bit out.
Lescaut was extravagantly sceptical. "That is the assumption in London? But here we say, perhaps they were not in Brussels after all. Perhaps they were in Kessel, planning to rob a man and killing him by accident. Perhaps they think it is better to confess to stealing something that does not exist than to admit to the killing they did."
"Do you get many burglars who introduce themselves to their victims without disguise, drink heartily with them, and then panic at the first sign of disappointment?" Sherlock asked scornfully.
Lescaut clearly understood the tone. "When we have an eyewitness able to name specific details about their appearance, whose own father was killed in front of her, we feel we have sufficient evidence to lock up any such burglars."
"What details did she offer?"
"Nothing that was released to any reporter. She knew about the ring Antoine Bresson was wearing, the scar on the side of his neck, and his partner Mathis Ott's crooked fingers."
"And all of that was kept out of the French- and Dutch-language papers?" he asked sceptically. "Have there been no eyewitnesses before, whose stories she could have pieced together?"
"No. We only know it ourselves because of a security camera three houses down from one of their earlier robberies."
"Let me see the pictures."
"You may have the entire file, for all the good it will do you. You have one hour."
The file was thin, and an hour would be more than sufficient. Lescaut's scrawl was so messy as to be illegible, so he looked only at the images. There he was, Karl Scheldt, collapsed on the floor of his own parlour with a surprised look on his face. Shards of glass lay all around his legs, a few even on his trousers. What looked at first glance like blood was clearly wine; the bottle and three delicate glasses had shattered. Two of the glasses had broken into miniscule fragments, but the third lay in larger shards. The stem was mostly gone, and the cup, which retained enough of its bowl to still hold some wine, had a lip as jagged as a skyline.
Sherlock pulled out his pocket magnifier, which called forth a derisive chortle from Lescaut, easily ignored though not to be forgotten. The wine inside the cup, he saw, was cloudy with beeswing. Not a trace of that residue was visible in any other splash or puddle of wine at the scene. He checked all of the other images in the file and found no evidence to the contrary.
"Were you able to confirm that the dinner Scheldt attended did not include Bresson and Ott?" he asked, giving Lescaut one last chance. But Lescaut was as hard-headed as Gregson and as stubborn as Anderson.
"There were hundreds of attendees, any of whom could have assumed a false name in order to gain admittance to the conference," Lescaut dismissed. "Mademoiselle Scheldt might well have been mistaken in her assumption that her father's killers came with him from the dinner at the end of the conference. M. le Detective," he said, assuming an English twang meant to sound provincial, "your time is up."
"Take it," Sherlock said, baring his teeth in what might, in a pinch, pass as a smile and not an act of aggression. "I've no further need for it. I'll be off."
"But what are your conclusions?" Lescaut asked, insincere surprise colouring his tone.
"To be given only when I have reached the end of this matter, which is larger than you can possibly appreciate." He stood, letting himself tower menacingly over Lescaut, and waved the man out of the house.
"Mevrouw Scheldt," he called, climbing the stairs, certainty building with each step. He found her in that white room, pictures of her children on her lap. "I need to speak with Krista," he said, as gently as he could, and saw the confirmation he needed in the dread written on her face.
"It was I –" she started, valiantly, but faltered when he held up a hand to silence her.
"Let me speak with her. I am working for your son, not the police."
"She stays in another town. I will have the car take you," she said without further demurral.
It was insultingly easy to break into Krista's tiny flat, and a quick inspection of the place showed that she was not often at home. There were clothes both fashionable and expensive scattered everywhere, but few domestic appliances, books, or knickknacks. There was no desktop, and none of the accessories a laptop owner might collect but not haul around. Everything must be on her mobile, which meant he had to wait. Surely it would not be long, if Mevrouw Scheldt had called to tell her daughter to cooperate?
In the meantime, he set his own smartphone to work. Lescaut had been careless enough to give him the names and supposed location of the burglars on the fateful night. He searched for "Brussels" and "Bresson," then the former with "Ott," and still had no hits. It was possible that the pair had, as he'd suggested, stolen something dangerous to possess, but their silence could equally well indicate their participation in a more shattering crime. He searched again, eliminating the city name, and at last found something.
An article, written for a French-language website unaffiliated with a newspaper – "Citoyen Blogger," atrocious blog title – listed a death notice for a Lieke Ott of Bruges, sister of Mathis Ott. A hyperlink stated baldly that Mathis Ott was a brute and petty criminal with a murderous temper, and listed cases in which he was suspected to have a hand. On the night Karl Scheldt had died, a kitchen knife had been plunged into Lieke's heart, and the citizen-blogger implied very heavily that such a death was unlikely to be the suicide that the police believed; Sherlock took one look at the photograph of the woman, alive and smiling, wearing a finely-worked crucifix pendant, and agreed.
A jangle of keys announced Krista's arrival, and Sherlock stood, smoothing down the jacket of his suit.
"I know," he said, and she nodded hopelessly. "Fortunately for you, no one in an official capacity knows what I know. Tell me how you gleaned the information on Bresson and Ott."
She released a great, shuddery sigh and collapsed onto the sofa. "It happened months ago. I'd been out with some friends, and we'd – I'd – been drinking too much." She spoke English as well as her brother, perhaps the result of long conversations on the phone. "My friend Annika wanted me to go back to her place, so she could keep an eye on me, so I went. I slept through my classes, and when I woke up, I thought I was alone. There were some papers on the table, and I looked and saw some photographs of two men. When I started reading what was written there, I realised these were the burglars that had been on a spree throughout Antwerp. I heard the shower stop, and realised that Annika's boyfriend must have come over after I fell asleep. He's a policeman. François le Villard. Nice man. He wouldn't have wanted me seeing his files, so I went back to the sofa and pretended I was just waking up when he came out of the bathroom."
"Just from a quick glance at the photographs you retained enough detail to lie convincingly to the police about Bresson and Ott?" Sherlock probed, curious about her visual memory.
"Yes. I've always been able to memorise images. I used to drive Roger mad by winning all of the memory games we played."
"Kim's game," Sherlock said, remembering how well the pastime had eased the endless long hours of childhood once Mycroft was away at school.
She nodded again, mute and drained. "What now?"
"Had your father ever hurt you before?"
"He hurt me every time he raised a hand to Maman. Roger wasn't there, he somehow always missed seeing, but Maman was afraid all the time." She swallowed with difficulty, her eyes on the floor. "That night, I told him I knew what he'd been doing to her, and that he had to stop or I would tell the world about him. He came after me, and I just pushed at him like I'd seen her do. Just a push, and suddenly he was falling and the sound – oh, God, the sound he made when his head struck –" She stopped, covering her mouth.
"You screamed when you realised he was dead. Your mother awoke and came down the stairs and saw you, unconscious. She poured some wine and held it to your lips in an effort to revive you," Sherlock prompted.
"We had all night to come up with a story – one that people would believe, because no one wanted to hear that Karl Scheldt could do anything wrong. She filled the wineglass again and threw it to the floor; there was no rug to trip over, but we wanted it to look like he'd gone clumsy from drinking. She poured most of the wine on the floor. That was when I remembered the burglars. We fetched two more glasses, filled them, and threw them down. We couldn't have anyone testing for fingerprints."
"You did very well," Sherlock said consideringly. "Save for the glass on top of the corpse rather than under it, since your story was that he'd knocked the table over first, and the beeswing in one of the glasses, the last of the bottle, which your mother did not decant in her haste to waken you. Also, you should have sustained some injuries from fainting and falling on top of the shattered glass, but that is more circumstantial."
"Beeswing?" she asked disbelievingly.
"A seasoned drinker like your father would not have offered wine that had not been properly decanted. The presence of that residue pointed unmistakeably to another person pouring the wine."
"What are you going to do now?" she asked, wearily lifting her gaze to meet his.
"I am going home," he said definitively. "Bresson and Ott did commit murder that night, as you claimed. Which crime they pay for is of no interest to me."
"Mrs. Hudson doesn't yet know?" Sherlock asked Irene, though he hardly needed the confirmation; Mrs. Hudson would never have let Irene pass by 221A with a simple, "Morning, love," if she had had the least notion of what was housed in Irene's belly.
"We wanted to wait until five months before telling anyone; you caught on sooner than expected."
How could he fail to notice that someone living in his flat was changing daily, her body growing steadily, if incrementally, more lush and rounded? Or that she held herself more carefully, as if she were less steady on her feet, and that her very gait had changed? Or that John was even more vigilant about ensuring that she ate at set times?
"Give me a modicum of credit for observation, at least, though why it should be a secret –"
"Not a secret, Sherlock," she interrupted, as though she had as much right as John to do so. "I lost one baby and didn't want to say anything about this one just in case."
Ah. "Five months is a turning point?" There was so much to research about pregnancy and children in general.
"John said he'll breathe easier once we get there, so yeah."
"What of your mother?" he asked curiously; she'd been old enough at the time of her half-brother's birth to take an interest in the process.
"I haven't told her yet," Irene said, sounding worn and diminished, and Sherlock recalled that he'd never seen a letter from the woman come to the flat, nor heard a phone conversation between the two. "She hasn't – there are other people who are here who should know."
"I meant, what was her experience?" he clarified. "Is five months a standard amount of time to wait, or was that just due to your history?"
"It's a big milestone, the halfway point," she said, abashed. "We'll hit it this Saturday, so John's making dinner for Harry and Clara and we're telling them then."
"There's more going on than that," Sherlock said, eyeing her curiously. "What is it?"
"You'll have to be there to find out," Irene said.
"We're off for a proper honeymoon," Harry said, beaming.
"Ah, finally!" John said, dishing up the food. "Where's it to be, then?"
"Australia," Clara said. "I've always wanted to go, and Harry's run away with the idea."
"You have to go to the Opera House, definitely, and I never got to Melbourne, but I heard it's great," Irene said.
"Sherlock, have you been?" Harry asked. He shook his head shortly and poked at the masses of cheese and sauce and vegetables on his plate.
"We leave next month and will be gone for three weeks," Clara continued. "All that's booked are the flights there and back; we still need to determine our itinerary."
"That's the fun part," John said, smiling at them. "We've actually got news of our own. We're expecting."
"I was wondering why you looked extra-gorgeous tonight," Harry said, turning sideways in her chair to embrace Irene tightly. "Jay? What about –?"
"The echocardiogram said her heart is fine," John assured his sister, and Sherlock needed to know what family history had required an echocardiogram.
Before he could ask, Clara piped up, "It's a girl, then?"
"We're going to have a daughter," Irene confirmed, setting off another round of embraces and kisses that Sherlock endured because John's arm landed on his shoulders.
He cursed himself for only looking into John's military medical records, for prioritising that fascinating scar on John's shoulder above what had seemed to be the ordinary workings of his body.
"What necessitated the echocardiogram?" he asked, casting an abrupt pall over the celebratory mood; really, John and Irene had had sex and a sperm had fertilised an egg, and there was nothing extraordinary about any of it. All of them turned their gazes on John, as if he would put Sherlock in his place.
But John knew him too well for that, and understood that the health of this half-John child was a matter of concern to him. "Mum was born with a condition called aortic stenosis that wasn't diagnosed until her brother Hamish died of it. His heart was strained by having to compensate for a dangerously narrowed aortic valve. Her case was relatively mild, enough that growing up we didn't know she was sick, but she died of it just after I went off to uni, still quite young." That explained why John was so fanatically attached to the wristwatch his parents had given him upon going off to read medicine. John's hand found Harry's and squeezed. "It turned out Dad knew all along but respected her right not to burden us with the knowledge, though they'd had both of us tested several times, as it runs in families."
"You know, I asked Dad what she said to convince him it was best not to tell us," Harry said to John, as if no one else could hear her words. Her fingers clutched his. "She quoted van Gogh to him: 'I get very cross when people tell me that it is dangerous to put out to sea. There is safety in the very heart of danger.'"
At that, both Watsons laughed, and Sherlock sent Irene and Clara each a sidelong glance; it was surely a little odd for merriment to feature in a discussion about a beloved parent's death. Neither woman was any help, each focused on her partner. Why was Celia Watson's response funny? And what had Thomas Watson's response been, given that he too was dying, though of cancer? Pancreatic cancer was particularly insidious, he remembered from his research into terminal conditions for the Porlock case, in that symptoms only manifested near the end. The twin blows, less than one year apart, had hit both children hard; John had enlisted and Harry had started her campaign of relentless drinking.
"She had a quotation for everything," John said, still grinning. "'April showers brought me my May flower,'" he said, pinching Harry's cheek.
"'Mum, I'm going to read medicine,'" Harry said, in a poor but recognisable imitation of John, wide-eyed and earnest. "'Knowing how the body works doesn't take away from the pleasure of living.'"
"Except you missed out the wink she gave me at the end of that, which was mortifying. And there was Dad, egging her on, and you, standing there as if butter wouldn't melt in your mouth!" John answered.
"I miss them," Harry said, smile fading slowly.
"Me too," John said.
"They'd be happy for you now, though, wouldn't they?" Irene asked.
"Over the moon," Clara said. "I've never known anyone like your mum for being happy."
"To their good example," John said, and Sherlock raised his glass as well, unwilling to be the fly in the ointment, though he had every intention of researching aortic stenosis further. "And, in the spirit of Mum's overly honest speeches, to my darling Irene, for doing all of the hard work and letting me simply reap the reward."
Irene laughed at that, and Sherlock watched as they all dug into their food, apparently made famished by so much frankness. He stirred the food on his plate and took one tentative bite.
Sherlock was pacing circles around the coffee table, thinking through the conclusions Donovan had forwarded to him on the Cicero case. He was pleasantly surprised by the incisive reasoning she used to get from one step to the next, and how clearly she presented her arguments. He rolled his eyes when he saw that John, tired of trying to move his feet out of Sherlock's way with every pass, had simply swung them up on the sofa and pressed his back to the sofa arm and that Irene had mirrored him so that the soles of their feet pressed together. John had a crossword puzzle in his lap and Irene had a book of verse, but they ignored their pursuits in favour of another round of tedious flirtation; what more could it possibly achieve at this point, when they had both made clear that they had all they sought?
"I want her to have your eyelids," John said in an undertone that nevertheless carried.
"I want her to be left-handed, like you."
That seemed to check John's incipient flow, Sherlock noted, with a tiny stab of vindictive pleasure. "Why on earth?"
"I just like lefties, what can I say? You're lucky I have a weakness for southpaws."
"Then we're agreed, she should have my sense of humour," John said.
"Hey! I am extremely funny."
"That is hilarious, but not enough for it to be the first joke we tell her."
"Hey!" Irene said again, squawking without any dignity when John, laughing, tossed aside his paper, reached over and hauled her onto his lap, and pressed a kiss beneath her ear. Aurora Leigh tumbled off her lap with a loud clatter, but Sherlock pretended he observed none of it and was fully absorbed in Donovan's findings about a conspiracy of British spies all mistakenly convinced that several of their junior members were double agents.
"That's right, you can't tell jokes without giggling even before you get to the punchline," John pretended to remember. "Lucky for you I find that ridiculously endearing."
"You do have a magnificent deadpan," Irene conceded, sounding appeased. "She'll be lucky if she inherits that. And your smile." Sherlock silently approved of the last addition to the list.
"Let's be realistic and hope that she looks like you," John said simply, his hand tucking under the loosely-tied sash of her dressing-gown to rest lightly on her belly, still fairly trim despite the recent addition of a few kilos.
"John?" she said quietly, tilting her face up as he pressed close to nuzzle her cheek. "I have a name in mind."
"Oh," he said, startled into sitting back and darting a glance up at Sherlock, who had paused in his circuit. "I – we have – what is it?"
"Cecilia Tamsin," Irene said, squirming around to look directly into John's stunned face. "Your mum sounds like exactly the person I want her to be, so Cecilia. You were named after your grandfathers, and I want her name to have a history."
"And Tamsin?" John murmured.
"I always liked that name. And it's a feminine version of Thomas. You said they were never apart for very long, so here they are in one name."
"But what about your family? I thought you might want to call her Daniela after your mum."
"No." Irene shook her head. "She'll get a chance to be all sorts of things for her granddaughter, but not the namesake." John bent his head and kissed her soundly. "So we're agreed?"
"Seal a bargain with a kiss," John said, leaning forward to do it again, when Mrs. Hudson, with a sense of timing Sherlock had never suspected might be one of her talents, gave a cursory knock on the door and entered.
John's smile, already incandescent, grew dazzling. "Two minutes, Mrs. Hudson, for us to get dressed, and then we're taking you and Sherlock out to dinner at Angelo's."
"Ooh! That sounds a treat," Mrs. Hudson said, clapping her hands together once. "I'll just change myself and meet you downstairs."
"You're coming, Sherlock," John said from the foot of the stairs.
"But Lestrade –"
"Is on holiday until Sunday, so he won't be texting you."
"What? Where?" It wasn't as if Lestrade's mere presence in a locale was enough to quash all crime in the vicinity.
"In the West Country. He's visiting with his sisters; he told us months ago," John said, tolerant and amused, then dashed up the stairs.
Sherlock did not need to change, and waited impatiently for John to return. "Are you going to be telling Mrs. Hudson about the baby tonight?"
"That's the plan."
"Have you told Mycroft?"
"I'm having lunch with him tomorrow – Sherlock, have you already told him?"
"No," he said truthfully, uncertain whether Mycroft would have been able to deduce it from Sherlock's behaviour at their last meeting; probably not, as nothing similar had ever occurred to either of them, and Mycroft would have no pattern of behaviour to form adequate context. If Mycroft had not taken down his cameras and destroyed the bug Moriarty had planted in John's wristwatch, he might have known at the very moment John found out. Perhaps, Sherlock mused, he would prefer hearing the news directly from John and being invited to share in the emotions it aroused. "You must be glad Moriarty is dead," he said, recalling the chain of events that had begun with Mycroft's repudiation of him.
The dark blue of John's eyes went cold as shadowed stone. "Yes, I am," he said, and gripped Sherlock's shoulder fiercely.
Mrs. Hudson was susceptible enough to Angelo's flattery to be persuaded that an order of his three-meat lasagne would do nothing untoward to her figure. Angelo did not bother taking orders from the rest of them, assuring them instead that they would be pleased with what he brought them; Angelo had always done so with Sherlock, but it was only now that he considered that in so doing, Angelo was deducing him, albeit in a very small way for limited reward. Sherlock sat up alertly, wondering what significance Angelo assigned to posture, time of day, number in the party, and dining history. It might make for an amusing experiment if Lestrade persisted in taking wrong-headed holidays willy-nilly.
Before their food could be brought out, John leaned toward Mrs. Hudson. "We've got a bit of an ulterior motive in asking you to dinner tonight, Mrs. Hudson," he said conspiratorially.
Irene leaned in too, one lock of her hair settling on John's shoulder. "We're having a baby."
"Oh, John, love!" Mrs. Hudson exclaimed, kissing his cheek firmly. She held out a hand to Irene, seated across from her. "Oh, Sherlock, isn't this exciting!"
"Yes," Sherlock allowed, considering how little she must get by way of real news.
"When are you due, love? Are you having a boy or a girl?"
"A girl. Due in eighteen weeks," Irene said.
"That isn't much time at all!" Mrs. Hudson said, hands flying to her cheeks. "There's so much to do!"
"You and I will make schedules and lists," Irene promised, and Mrs. Hudson settled immediately.
"There's nothing like a baby," she said, and before Sherlock could point out the idiocy of that statement, Angelo arrived, bearing their bread and olive oil.
"Why did you come to our flat earlier?" Sherlock asked, taking a small roll but disdaining the oil, in which freshly chopped garlic swelled.
"Oh, yes!" Mrs. Hudson said, at last recalling her original errand. "Loretta's just been given notice by Roger and Danh. It seems they're going to Belgium and settling there, since you solved that case for the family. Just when she was thinking of going to live with her sisters down in Brighton, and now she's got the worry of finding someone to take the flat who won't ruin the house. It's all such a trial for her, poor dear. She doesn't have a hip, of course, but at her age, she can't be going up and down those stairs all the time either."
"No, of course not," Irene said. "Are she and her sisters close?"
"There's some squabbling between them, but they close ranks if anyone else makes a peep about any of them. As it should be," Mrs. Hudson said with a decided nod, pulling apart her roll and releasing a cloud of fragrant, yeasty steam.
At their lunch, John must not have invited Mycroft along that evening, for he looked surprised when Mycroft knocked politely at the door. He asked for Irene and handed her a gift envelope before setting foot in the flat. John peered over her shoulder as she opened it, and while she went pink, John eyed Mycroft wryly, and murmured, "Silver-tongued devil." Irene pulled out the gift card enclosed within the note and frowned her puzzlement.
"My gift is being held at the shop until you are ready to pick it up or have it delivered. I saw no need to clutter up this flat until that time."
"Meaning?" Sherlock asked, recognising the signs of Mycroft wanting to make an announcement.
"John, you told me that your neighbours are moving."
"Yes," John acknowledged, a look so complicated on his face that Sherlock wanted to pause time to be able to study it as it deserved.
"I know you have reservations about raising a child in this flat, which is already rather cramped for three people, but you also are unwilling to leave Sherlock on his own. The time when you will have to commit to one path or the other is quickly approaching. I can assure you that Sherlock will not suffer financially from losing you as a flatmate, and I can offer my assistance if you wish to not just rent but purchase 219 Baker Street. You would still enjoy proximity to Sherlock and also be able to give your daughter an experiment-free flat."
Throughout Mycroft's speech, Sherlock kept his eyes on John, waiting for some reaction, but John merely stood still and let the flood of words wash over him. It was Irene who gasped, prompting John to reach out his hand without breaking eye contact with Mycroft, to enclose hers in his own.
"It's a splendid opportunity, to be sure," John said slowly. "I make enough at Barts to be able to rent the B flat at least."
"Mrs. Turner is amenable to selling, as she would be able to move to Brighton immediately," Mycroft said smoothly, and as Sherlock was about to object, continued. "As is Mrs. Hudson, actually, though she wishes to remain in residence. She is also willing, Sherlock, to raise no objections to you refitting the C flat into a decent laboratory, as long as it is properly ventilated and stocked with safety equipment."
"Why?" Sherlock demanded, questioning not her motives but Mycroft's.
"I have money, from which I choose to provide for my family. This arrangement should suit us all."
"It's too much," Irene said, and John's face softened with relief; Sherlock was surprised to feel the last of his resistance to her vanishing at this proof that she could precisely match John's instincts. "This is an insanely expensive city; buying a building in an area like this requires more money than I've ever seen in my life."
"It won't be missed," Mycroft said simply. "Please don't make me ask again, or I shall think you are intent on severing ties with all who bear the name Holmes."
"And 221?" Sherlock interjected. "Can the coffers be stretched enough to cover that as well?"
"If you wish, though I thought you might choose to use your own funds," Mycroft said in his mildest tone.
"His own –? Sherlock, did you not need a flatmate to afford this place?" John asked.
"I told you I think better when I talk aloud," Sherlock said petulantly, aware that John and Mycroft were exchanging glances promising incipient laughter. He fought the irritated shudder crawling up his spine and decided to be generous and allow them their mirth. "If I am the landlord, Mrs. Hudson will have no right to take my skull," he finished, and John burst into laughter, Irene and then Mycroft following where he led.
The deadly dull beiges and creams of 219B were being covered up by oranges, scarlets, and blues. John was in his oldest jeans and a stained and faded red cotton vest. He had peacock-blue drops of paint in his hair, and was able to cover the walls while berating Sherlock.
"Are you helping or just taking up space?" he asked, rolling paint onto the walls diligently.
"I am thinking," Sherlock explained dignifiedly, though he should not have had to respond to such an unfair query.
"Evolution has fitted us with brains that work even as our hands go about manual labour," John said dryly. "Pick up a roller and get to work."
"This is a misuse of my time," Sherlock muttered discontentedly. "Where is Irene?" She was the one who would be living there with John, after all; she should have to contribute.
"Away from the paint fumes, as I asked. She's helping out with rehearsals." John's tone was light, and Sherlock considered that Irene might already have contributed by ensuring John's happiness.
Sherlock watched him work, the muscles of his back rippling as he worked, his legs going taut as he stretched to reach up to the ceiling, edged in blue tape that was a close match for the colour going up on the walls.
"It will be odd living without you," Sherlock said, surprising even himself.
John turned sharply, just as startled, and broke out into a smile that crinkled his eyes and made the mask covering his nose and mouth shift upward. "I'll be just next door." He hardly required evidence, but it was pleasant to be given further proof that John knew him well enough to veto his next proposal without even hearing it. "And no, we won't be cutting a door to run between the two flats. But if you brush up on your Morse code and promise to use it only in case of emergencies, we can knock messages to each other. Happy?"
Sherlock sketched a nod; to begrudge John his evident happiness would simply be churlish, particularly since John had only taken this final step upon being assured that Sherlock would not suffer for it. His mobile buzzed.
"Ah! Lestrade has a case," he said, smiling at the sight of those familiar words. Will you come?
"Ah, now you're happy, you mad git," John said, plucking his mask off his face and raising it to rest on top of his head. He wiped his face with his forearm. "I've still got this room and another to finish, but text me if you need me."
"I will, John," he promised and exited 219, the sound of John's cheerful whistling floating through the open windows as he stood on Baker Street and hailed a taxi.
As always, I'd love to hear what you think!
This same entry also appears on Dreamwidth, at http://innie-darling.dreamwidth.org/425946.html.