The air in the kitchen smelt faintly of apples and cheese, the fragrance growing sharper in his nose as he got closer to the table, upon which rested a plate heaped with eighths of one and cubes of the other. John spooned some ploughman's pickle on a smaller dish.
"Don't tempt me," Irene moaned, eyeing all of it ravenously; "there's already no way I'm going to fit into my costume, and it was made for me just last year."
"Have some apple at least, darling," John said, though he pushed the plate in Sherlock's direction, to tempt him as well. Sherlock indulged and immediately his stomach demanded more.
He sat and decided to tread softly, that he might keep John in this obliging mood. "What costume is that?" he asked politely, dipping his next slice of apple into the swamp of pickle on John's plate.
"I'm singing Romeo for a benefit," Irene said readily, fingers darting out to capture a slice of fruit. "I sang it last year in Philadelphia with my friend Mary playing Juliet. We're both in London, and someone got the bright idea to transplant the production over here."
"When does it come off?"
"For Valentine's Day. We all know our parts, and the orchestra here is fantastic. But there's all the publicity and ticket sales and, ugh, Mary and I have to waste time getting photographs taken and giving interviews. Nothing ever gets done when it should, and it just cuts into our rehearsal time." She pushed impatiently at the heavy darkness of her hair, falling out of its untidy knot, and reached for more apple.
"Scotland Yard works on much the same principle," Sherlock said, pleased when Irene's giggles ignited John's.
She stood, unnecessarily laying a hand on John's arm. "Today's picture day. Promise me there will be cheesecake when I come home." John inclined his head as if he needed to be convinced. "Chocolates?" John still said nothing, chewing thoughtfully at a cube of smoked cheddar. "Some kind of treat?"
John grinned at her. "That I can safely promise." He relaxed in his chair, drinking tea as if he hadn't a care in the world.
As soon as Irene's tread was audible on the stairs, Sherlock looked at John curiously. It was frustrating how much more opaque John had become, just when it turned out most of his actions had nothing to do with Sherlock anymore; that mischievous smile breaking across his face was surely caused by the thought of Irene rather than him, the case, or even his work. Still, Sherlock could not help looking at John to try to trace the course of his thoughts, but as he watched, the smile went from puckish to disarming.
"Well? I'm not on shift until tomorrow morning, if you want to talk over the case," John offered, warming his hands around his mug of tea in a gesture Sherlock had seen so many times that the rush of love he felt took him completely by surprise. John was magnificent.
If only he was wholly Sherlock's, as Sherlock was wholly his.
Still, no one else got to see John in just this way, vital and alive as he pieced clues together, trying to steer his brain out of his accustomed courses and put it through entirely new paces; John was direct by nature and the corkscrew turns of really good cases required him to step out of himself. He brought a whole new set of gestures to the task: ticking off points on his fingers and chewing at the inside of his left cheek.
"What do we know?" John began, eyes bright and engaged. "We know that Lily Douglas, poor lady, a stewardess, landed back in London after a flight from New Zealand yesterday morning" – he checked his watch, the square face outlined in gold catching the light briefly – "at about this time." He frowned, biting his lip. "No, actually, I suppose we don't know that, not for sure. She might have been there, or in New Zealand, or anywhere in the world for that matter. We'll have to check on that."
"Lestrade," Sherlock said, dismissing the thought with a wave of his hand.
"We know that Lily reported finding a corpse in her flat, and that furthermore she believed the corpse to be that of her flatmate. Platonic, never dated or shagged, found each other on a flat-share website." Sherlock considered this information, which John must have coaxed out of Lily when he'd been promising with the warmth of his hand and his attention to keep all the monsters at bay. "We know that the flatmate, Fred Porlock, had been to Ethiopia for an unspecified length of time and had got back to England within the last two or three weeks. We know that he contracted some illness, which either was acquired or gestated while he was in Africa or, at the very latest, on his flight home. We know that the corpse found in the flat matches Fred Porlock's height and body type but did not display the symptoms Porlock presumably did, though an attempt had been made to mimic them. We know that the corpse was bludgeoned and stabbed, but not if either of those was the cause of death. We don't know if that is Fred Porlock. Stop me anytime, Sherlock."
"No, it was quite illuminating hearing our case laid out so crisply," Sherlock said. "You have thrown some light upon it by stating your conviction that the corpse is not Fred Porlock. It is time now to list what makes you believe so."
It surely redounded to his credit, Sherlock thought, watching John lick his lips as he prepared to lay out his chain of reasoning, that John no longer backed down when pressed thus. The man who'd protested that he had no intention of courting humiliation when presented with Carl Powers' trainers had given way to this one, who relished using his mind to its full capacity. John was astounding. Sherlock's smile soured slightly when Irene, freshly showered and for once not dressed in John's clothing, dashed into the kitchen to bestow a fervent but hasty kiss on his flatmate before leaving for her photo shoot; it was possible, judging by John's blissful glow, that Irene had been a factor in his evolution. Then again, perhaps not – it was hardly his brain that Irene was stimulating.
Sherlock gnawed on another slice of apple while John got up, presumably to walk Irene to the door, though he heard no fervent farewells, only the sound of rummaging. John came back to the kitchen with his phone in hand and, without being prompted, returned to the topic at hand. Sherlock nodded approvingly.
"The photograph from Lily's mobile shows us Fred Porlock after his return from Africa. Solid, fleshy face. Nothing remarkable about his looks either way. But I remembered what you had said, during Harry's case, about ears being distinctive, and yeah, Fred Porlock's were rather." He held up the mobile and Sherlock took note of Porlock's right ear, resting nearly flat against his head, with its attached lobe and pronounced anti-tragus. "But our corpse's ears, hairline, and face were all obliterated. All that was left was a few inches of his mandible, exactly where a sticking plaster had been placed. So permanent features had been wiped away, but a temporary one was left, which suggested that the identity of the corpse was not as straightforward as it first seemed." John paused long enough to push the plate closer to Sherlock. "Eat some cheese; you could use the calories."
Sherlock rolled his eyes extravagantly but obliged. "The illness?"
John rubbed self-consciously at his ear. "Yeah, my first clue there was the smell. Cheap cosmetics have a distinctive plasticky tang to them; you'd know it if you'd spent as much time as I had in grotty pubs, trying to pull." Sherlock had just opened his mouth to protest that John could hardly have smelt such a scent over the odours of blood and death when John murmured into his surely lukewarm tea, "Thank god that's over."
Sherlock went hot, then cold, once he parsed John's meaning, and to distract himself he considered the way John looked as he sniffed at a corpse; he had done it with Jennifer Wilson and he had done it with the Putative Porlock. It was an animalistic gesture the way he performed it, delicate but direct, the nose that gave his face so much character put to its proper use; it was all too easy to imagine John on the pull – no more, he'd said – confident and appealing, invited to scent a woman's pulse-points, just where her perfume had been applied.
"But there's no condition I'm aware of, other than blushing, that reddens the skin but does nothing else; there was no peeling, cracking, or swelling underneath the colour, and once I touched it, it came off on my glove. Bit of a giveaway, that," John finished, helping himself to more food.
"Plus," John added, swallowing the last slice of apple, "it just seemed odd that he would have needed Lily to take the snap, considering it was only of his face. A mobile" – here he sent a portentous look Sherlock's way – "may easily be borrowed for something like that. For a full-length photo, yes, it would make sense to ask for assistance, but not for that."
"That he was unfamiliar with the technology of her mobile, unwilling to borrow when it was just as quick to ask her, or – and this is the one I favour, going by the slight blur in the photo – unable to hold the phone steady to take the snap himself." Sherlock looked up sharply at that, considering the possibilities; John's medical instincts were hardly worth debating. "Which means that if the killer's taken him somewhere, he's virtually helpless."
Sherlock thought back; he'd seen no sign of abduction at the site, which meant –
"Earth to Sherlock, hello," John said, sitting down with two mugs of fresh tea. "Have you got it already? I could spend some time doing some research into Porlock's condition, if you like."
"Do that," Sherlock said, fascinated by how much John had already uncovered. "I need to speak with Lestrade and with Lily Douglas."
"I'll be cleaning the flat while you're gone," John warned. "Anything I need to steer clear of?"
"Most of the mess isn't mine, it's hers," Sherlock said, and John nodded as he enlarged the photo on his mobile, studying it for further clues.
"Lestrade," Sherlock said, striding into the man's office, "how far have you got with the Fred Porlock case?"
Lestrade looked up from the paperwork on his desk, evidently a little caught out. "Ah. The body's in a queue at the Royal Free, as Barts got backed up. I haven't heard from them yet, though they're supposed to get to it sometime today."
"Never mind that for now," Sherlock said, which caused Lestrade to frown more deeply than before for some reason. "I need to speak with the flatmate, Lily Douglas."
"You think she's involved?" Lestrade asked disbelievingly.
"Just think, Lestrade. I simply have not spoken with her and heard about her flatmate's illness or his whereabouts directly from the only witness we've got. Have you at least recovered Porlock's mobile?"
"No," Lestrade said shortly.
"All the more reason to believe that the corpse isn't his, then, isn't it?" Sherlock asked, sitting in the chair opposite. "Call her. Porlock must be located; John believes he's seriously ill."
Ten minutes later, they were on their way to the block of flats; Lily's landlord was the family type and had let her kip on the sofa while she considered whether she could bear to return to the scene of the crime.
"Ms. Douglas," Sherlock said when she opened the door, "we only need a few answers from you, so the more quickly you answer, the better."
"Yes, all right," she said, sounding subdued. "Come in."
Sherlock noted that she was not wearing cosmetics, cheap or dear, which either meant that she simply hadn't bothered today or that the powdered rouge on the corpse had been provided by the killer. It would be fascinating to watch as one of those probabilities became more heavily weighted as he received answers to his questions.
"First, you told John that you met Fred Porlock through a flat-share site. Which site was it? How long ago was that? Were you moving in with him or was he with you?"
"A couple of years ago now. I'd signed on to so many of those sites that I can't remember now which one I met Fred through – flats4u or something like that, I think. One of the girls from work was quitting the flat to move to Hong Kong, and she had me round to see the place before she and her husband moved out, so I suppose you could say Fred moved in with me, though it wasn't really my flat either until then." There was weariness in her tone, but no excessive grief or despair.
Sherlock's expectations for the interview rose; if she could be so straightforward for the length of it, he might leave with all of the answers he needed after all.
"Why had Fred gone to Africa?"
He felt Lestrade sit up a bit straighter and nudge him when Lily laughed ruefully before answering; Lestrade was completely wrong if he believed that this reaction had anything to do with guilt. "Bit of an odd bloke, that one, though there was no harm in him, really. Just felt he had to solve all the world's problems, and he was the only one to do it."
Sherlock brought back to mind John's words, soothing as a mantra, about his own work being a public service, and wondered why striving to achieve, to be extraordinary, was counted as such a risible endeavour.
"He wanted to go and lead Ethiopia out of poverty."
"White man's burden, Jesus is the light, or micro-loans?" Lestrade asked, pitching his tone to match hers, and Sherlock briefly admired the skill in that before turning to her to focus on her answer.
"Mostly the first, but in all honesty, I don't think he had much of a plan. Just wanted to go and help out. He wasn't a hypocrite, though; he tried to live simply even when he was here – didn't have a computer, just stuck with the mobile he'd had for years, that sort of thing. He didn't deserve to die for it."
"So you believe he was followed from Africa to England?" Sherlock asked. It stretched credibility, but stranger things had happened.
"No, I just meant – Fred was trying to do good. And someone killed him so viciously that it couldn't have been an accident. And he didn't deserve that." Which simply begged the question of who did deserve such an ending, in Lily Douglas's mind, but there was no point in raising a query.
"Was he ill before he left?" he asked instead.
"No, I don't think so. But I didn't see a lot of him before he left – I was mostly working or at Alec's, and Fred was trying to make all of his arrangements for the trip at an internet cafe. I mostly saw him when we both wanted a cuppa at the same time."
"I've had weeks like that," Lestrade put in, and Lily smiled when she saw his wedding ring. "So he got sick in Africa, then? What'd he have?"
"Well, you saw his hands and feet," she responded. "They got worse and they started to look a bit, well, raw, but he took to wearing socks and pulling the cuffs of his sleeves over his hands, so I don't know what state they were in, if he was getting better like he said. And he was having . . . spasms, I guess you'd call them, at times. Bad ones, that would jerk him around, but then he'd be fine so quickly that I didn't feel like I could insist that he go to hospital. And . . ." She trailed off.
"Yes?" Sherlock prompted.
"And I wonder if he was seeing things, because I'd catch him staring off into space with the oddest look on his face. At the time I chalked it up to jetlag, but what if it was a symptom, and I didn't help him? Oh, God!"
Lestrade soothed her, one professional arm around her as she cried into his shoulder. Sherlock took the opportunity to text John the latest data. "Raw" hands and feet. Intermittent spasms. Possible visual hallucinations. Most likely contracted during stay in Ethiopia. Which conditions fit the bill? SH
"You didn't ask her if there was anyone who might have wanted to hurt Porlock," Lestrade noted as they stepped outside, as if it had slipped Sherlock's mind.
"Of course not. They simply shared a living space and had no real involvement in each other's lives; that much was obvious even from our first encounter with her, when she stated that Porlock wanted a photograph of himself to send to 'a friend' he'd made abroad. Had the flatmates been friends as well, she would at least have known the name of the photo's intended recipient. Moreover, Porlock went to an internet cafe rather than borrowing Lily's computer. Yet they were cordial enough that he felt able to ask her for a favour, the aforementioned photograph." He adjusted his coat and thrust his hands into his pockets. "All we need to do now is locate the closest internet cafe and obtain his browser history. Perhaps by then John will have come up with some possibilities for what Porlock's mysterious disease is. And you might have brought yourself to acknowledge that the corpse Lily Douglas tripped over did not belong to her flatmate."
He strode off, ignoring Lestrade's expostulations. All the same, Lestrade was convenient to have around for this type of situation, Sherlock thought, watching the DI convince the proprietor of the internet cafe that turning over the search history associated with Porlock's login at the cafe – FredforGood – was a better idea than having any sort of grand ideas about defending a dead man's right to privacy when it worked out to letting a murderer get away scot-free. The proprietor saw the wisdom of such action, and sent them on their way with a zip file full of cached data.
"Christ, he sounds insufferable," Lestrade exclaimed, looking up from one of the printouts. "Telling everyone that all he required was 'bread and a blanket,' that he wanted 'to live as simply as the humblest brother.'"
Sherlock didn't bother to respond. He went through the zip file once again to verify his findings. The only email address that had received that photograph taken on Lily Douglas's phone was Porlock's own; it had never been forwarded, and in fact no messages had been exchanged with any of Porlock's "brothers" after his return.
"Most intriguing," Sherlock said, sitting back and folding his hands into the prayer position that most readily facilitated his thinking process.
John had gone out when Sherlock returned to the flat, but he'd left his laptop running in sleep mode and put a Post-It on its closed cover: Read me!
Sherlock snorted in amusement and obeyed, watching the computer come to life, several pages opening up, including a text document with John's numbered notes – brief, no doubt, because of the speed of John's typing, and barely grammatical.
(1) best guess for that combination of symptoms is ergotism, but that's quite rare and this would have to be a fairly serious case if he was still displaying all of them so long after he got back. (2) check for outbreak where he was staying? extraordinarily odd if he was the only one. (3) botanical research – most likely culprit rye; occurred in Ethiopia before. (4) if no hallucinations, ergotism far less likely.
Fairly cogent for John, who usually invested his writing with much more extraneous flair that ended up obscuring his point; that third point must have been especially rewarding for John, who'd clearly inherited his mother's mania for gardening, which did him no good living in the middle of London. Sherlock was rather impressed, all the more so when he went through the pages John had left up, with gruesome illustrations of the disease, known for centuries as "St. Anthony's Fire." The case was proving educational as well as entertaining, and he sighed contentedly and read what John had found.
By the time John returned, bearing carrier bags from Sainsbury's and M&S, a slim plastic package from the record store across the park, and one plain red bag without a logo – Sherlock didn't recognise the hue and frowned at his own ignorance – he was done reading the sites John had bookmarked.
"I need you," he said, waiting for John to acquiesce.
"Yeah. Come to the kitchen so I can cook while you're thinking," John invited.
Sherlock poked him until John set a cup of tea in front of him and then turned back to the worktop to make preparations for dinner. Sherlock was aware that John insisted upon eating every day, and would even admit that he enjoyed the cuisine John offered, but it made no sense, as a practical matter, to devote such a large percentage of time to food preparation and consumption, not to mention clean-up. John, however, didn't seem aware of the waste; he was whistling some cheery tune as he sliced several onions finely, pausing occasionally to rub tears out of his eyes with his shoulders. The slices went into a pan on low heat and John bustled about, organising the rest of his ingredients as the onions slowly caramelised.
"Well?" he asked, looking over his shoulder at Sherlock, who'd neglected his tea in favour of watching John's neat-handed work. "What did Lily tell you?"
"Not much," Sherlock acknowledged. "Lestrade is even now trying to follow up with some people in that village in Ethiopia regarding a possible outbreak of ergotism, but –"
"But that still leaves you no closer to solving either of the two mysteries at hand: where Fred Porlock is and who was actually killed in his stead." John reached up to the cabinet above the hob, his socked heels coming slightly off the floor, and fetched down a bottle of balsamic vinegar. "It seems like they'd have to be linked, but it doesn't really follow, does it?"
"How so?" Sherlock inquired, unwilling to break the flow of John's remarkably pleasant voice to ask for biscuits.
"Well," John said, chopping vegetables roughly and tossing them into a large ceramic bowl, "the corpse was dressed up to look like Porlock, right, with the blush on the hands and the features obliterated. Which suggests that it needed to look like Porlock was dead, but that the killer knew the victim wasn't to be Porlock himself. So what would that killer need Porlock for? Why would he take him if he could have just killed him?"
"And who would have needed to see Porlock as the victim? Lily could not name a single friend of his and went so far as to suggest that she was not particularly close with him despite cohabiting with him for a few years." Sherlock drummed his fingers on the table, feeling close to a breakthrough. "John! Did the blood spatter look odd to you?"
"Which part? It was all over the flat. Can't think how they'll ever get the walls clean again."
"No, not the flat; it's obvious the killing took place there, though it is rather surprising that no one heard any screams. I mean on the clothing."
"You're suggesting there was a single killing strike and then, once the victim was dead, all of the other blows were dealt to disguise his identity?" John asked, the steady rhythm of his knife not faltering; the mound of vegetables in the bowl had grown to a comical size. "I didn't see any spatter on the shirt consistent with that, although that's the only explanation that covers the lack of noise, if we take as a given that the first blow came as a complete surprise."
"Exactly, which suggests that the killer and the victim were known to each other. Fred Porlock was not the victim but the murderer. The blood spatter doesn't match because the victim was dressed after the fact in the murderer's shirt."
"Go through that one more time," John requested, sweeping the last of the vegetables off his chopping board into the bowl and then turning round to face him. "How did you get to that?"
"At least one of the people in Porlock's flat had to be Porlock or Lily, and Donovan confirmed that Lily was indeed on a flight at the time of death. The landlord, the only other person to have a key, was sorting out another tenant's leaky sink all morning. If you were going to murder someone, John, would you first break into someone else's flat to do so? No, it had to be that Porlock was there, and since he does not fit on one side of the equation, he must be on the other."
"Couldn't the boyfriend have a key?" John asked. "Lily said they'd been seeing each other for a few months, so the timing could work out.
Sherlock groaned. "You and Lestrade between you solved this one. Lestrade pointed out the similarity in appearance between Porlock and the boyfriend that first day, when he asked if the photograph of the boyfriend was of Porlock." He sat back, dejected. "Text Lestrade, would you, and tell him the case is closed."
"Not nearly, Sherlock," John argued, dashing vinegar into the pan and giving the onions a stir, causing a most pleasing fragrance to waft through the kitchen. "You've still got to prove your hypothesis correct. Did you follow up with Lily to ask if Alec really is at his mum's bedside in Glasgow? And what's your explanation for why Porlock would have murdered Alec?"
"The 'why' hardly matters if we know what happened."
"If you're right – if," John stressed, pretending that he didn't see Sherlock's withering glare, "there's a very ill man with blood on his hands somewhere in London."
"You say that as if there's only one, John." It was almost charming.
"And even if you're wrong, then we still need to find him and get him the treatment he needs."
Would John never get over his inclination to shoulder others' burdens? "Your argument is uncompelling. You and I do not need to do any such thing; that is what the police are for."
John subsided, though he looked dissatisfied. "You had better text Lestrade, then, if you're sure of your conclusions," was all he said, as if it were not perfectly obvious that he'd be haranguing Lestrade about the treatment to be accorded to Porlock when he was located.
"I'll tell him Porlock can most likely be found holed up in his victim's flat, shall I?" he offered.
John took his time washing his hands and then drying them. "Please do," he said. His hands were rough as he passed Sherlock his mobile. "Then wash up; we're having dinner as soon as Irene gets home."
John evidently enjoyed seeing Irene in his clothes; it was most likely some territorial instinct that hadn't been bred out of him. Put that way, Irene was far less likely to find it flattering than she clearly did, given the frequency with which she indulged him. At the moment it was the long-sleeved scarlet shirt that John had been wearing the morning after he'd killed Moriarty, which, Sherlock had failed to note until Irene's very different contours made it painfully obvious, was faintly striped, red on red. John seemed to favour striped patterns for moments when he needed comfort: that jumper Harry had bought him in which he wallowed after some of his breakups, that blue-and-black shirt he'd worn after succumbing to the illness he'd nursed Sherlock through, and this one, which he'd donned when turning his conscience inside-out. Even his dressing-gown was striped, though that might have been a coincidence.
He had his hand under the hem of the shirt, Sherlock could see, and was using his rough fingertips to sketch circles on her waist as she sat carelessly on his lap, both of them directing their attention to John's laptop.
"Want to see?" John asked him, and he shrugged; until Lestrade got back to him, he was rather at loose ends.
What they were looking at turned out to be digital images from Irene's photo shoot. Sherlock reached out to enlarge one of the photographs, which featured Irene and a blonde woman – presumably the Mary who was to play Juliet – gazing longingly at each other, hands just barely meeting in a delicate interlacing of fingertips.
"Are you meant to be passing as male?" he asked. If she was, then the endeavour was a marked failure; the costume was modelled after a courtier's dress, but cut to accommodate the curves of her figure, far more lush than a man's would be. "Or is this meant to titillate?"
John's fingers kept moving steadily, and Sherlock felt he might go dizzy tracking their motions.
"Romeo's only a boy, so the part goes to a contralto or even a mezzo instead of a tenor; everyone knows there's a woman playing his part. If that's what does it for you, then yes, it's titillating." Irene smiled as she minimised the image. "Hopefully, the audience isn't entirely made of pervs."
"And me," John reminded her.
"I was including you already, darling," she said sweetly, causing John to rumble out a laugh; she jumped a little when he tucked his face against her throat.
"Even if we are all pervs, our money's still good," John pointed out, ears gone pink with embarrassment.
"Ooh, good point," she said appreciatively, leaning back against his chest. She turned her attention back to the laptop when it sounded an alert. "Who's 'Lestrade'?"
"Greg," John told her, reaching for the trackpad to open the message. He spent a moment scanning the message and looked up at Sherlock. "He's on his way over." He kissed the nape of Irene's neck quickly. "Official business, darling. Where are you going to be?"
"I need to practise," Irene said, sounding entirely unruffled about being bundled out of the way. "Have you ever tested whether that little room was adequately soundproofed?"
"No," Sherlock said, recalling how injured he'd felt when John had vetoed each proposed experiment in quick succession.
"Then I'll do it for science," she said, nodding smartly and fetching her score from the coffee table before heading toward Sherlock's room, which offered the only entryway to the tiny room that might once have been a nursery and would have made an ideal lab had it only had a more powerful ventilation system.
"You were right, John," Lestrade said. "There was an outbreak of ergotism in a few of the towns where Porlock was staying, which officials in Ethiopia traced back to tainted rye flour. Apparently he displayed either no or very minimal symptoms during his stay, which suggests that it only became a full-blown case once he returned home. Is that possible?"
"I'm hardly an expert," John warned, "but yeah, a gestation period sounds plausible, particularly if no one was paying him much attention because of other, more severe cases cropping up."
Lestrade nodded sombrely. "We've also been trying to track down Alec MacDonald, since we're getting no response from the mobile number Lily Douglas gave us, and she couldn't help us with respect to his mother's name or address."
"That is because Alec MacDonald is dead; Fred Porlock killed him and has been living in his victim's flat."
"What?" Lestrade sounded confused, though if he'd read the texts Sherlock had sent, all of this should have been perfectly clear.
"What basis do we have for believing that Alec MacDonald was called away from London several days ago?" Sherlock prompted, identifying the moment John caught on by his sudden sad look, and disgusted by Lestrade's ongoing bafflement.
"Lily told us –"
"Lily Douglas was in New Zealand several days ago, remember? She had no reason to disbelieve her flatmate, who spun that story in order to preclude her suspicions about her lover's whereabouts."
"You're saying it was not just murder, but premeditated?" Lestrade asked harshly.
"Indeed. You should have asked for Alec's address, as that is where Porlock is, waiting to profit from his crime."
"Profit how?" John asked sharply.
"That he will have to tell us," Sherlock answered.
John begged off from lunch with Harry, Clara, and Irene in order to be part of the team storming MacDonald's flat, though Sherlock had the distinct impression that he was there less as an avenging angel and more in a medical capacity. There was no response to Lestrade's heavy official fist on the door, or even to Lestrade's choked, "God," when he'd pushed through the door and seen what was inside.
It was a scene even more gruesome than the first one had been. There was blood everywhere, and the razorblade in Porlock's dead hand was eloquent. John knelt as close to the body as he could without disturbing the spatter or the outflung limbs caught in some grotesque dance. His voice, when he detailed the destruction, was hushed and nearly reverent.
"He couldn't trust that his fingers would obey him for long, so he seized his moment – look, you can see cuts on the web between his thumb and forefinger the razorblade made each time he slipped or faltered. He attacked his legs first, slicing the skin off in sheets, trying to eradicate the signs of his illness, then his arms, and he struck arteries and bled out." The images John was painting were terrible but more than plausible; John caught his eye and hypothesised in a way he only dared because the case was, at its heart, a medical mystery. "When he killed MacDonald and removed his identity and substituted his own, he was trying to displace his condition as well. He must have become convinced that he could trick the illness into leaving him if offered a sacrificial victim to bear it in his stead."
Sherlock looked silently down at Fred Porlock's frenzied face and marvelled that, in the grip of such pained insanity, he had still been cleverer than most of the murderers Sherlock had caught. John had wrapped it up rather neatly, though there was a detail that had been niggling at his brain for days.
"Lestrade," he said, turning to the man, watching him drop a supportive hand to John's shoulder, "you never explained what case it was that caused a logjam of bodies at Barts."
There was still work to do.
John again failed to update his blog, though Sherlock had heard Lestrade offer a fitting entry title, The Blushing Body; he seemed more interested in spending his evening massaging Irene's sore muscles – her exultation about fencing onstage had been disconcertingly short-lived – while listening to her blithe chatter about how much she liked his sister and sister-in-law. Presumably the feeling was mutual; Harry especially was likely to see in Irene her younger brother's salvation and his last chance for the "normal life" she believed he must want.
Sherlock failed to entirely suppress the irritation that arose when he recalled that Harry had once looked on him with favour as the proper partner for John's life, though to do her credit, it was clear that his disappearance counted for more against him than his work to acquit her on the Milverton case counted for him. Damn all the Watsons, anyway, with their sense of justice and relish for fair play. Had he not won John's forgiveness?
Perhaps a cup of tea would remind John of that fact. He stalked into the kitchen, only to hear Irene break off her unending narrative to ask, "Would you mind making me a sandwich?"
He popped his head back out, unable to believe he'd heard her correctly. She already commandeered John's attention, and she still had the effrontery to act as if she had any right to ask favours. John looked up from kneading her neck with a smile.
"I'm getting peckish, and I know you've not eaten for at least a day. All of us could do with a sandwich."
Sherlock nodded curtly.
"Peanut butter and honey, please?" Irene requested, moaning a bit when John's precise fingers found the knot Sherlock had deduced ten minutes ago from the way she'd sat. Sherlock turned back to the kitchen without another word; the dramatics were getting to be too much for him.
He heard Irene's pleased exhalations as he examined the orderly row of jars of honey, each a different colour and, presumably, flavour or strength. The whitest, curiously, was the most sharply flavoured, hitting his tongue like raw spirits, while the amber varieties were richer, more mellow. He read the labels: basswood, aster, avocado, buckwheat, heather, macadamia, sage. All were from small farms in America, but were easily distinguishable from the others. How curious to think that the type of flower a hive of small insects chose to feed on influenced the meal he could make for John. He wondered if John's knowledge of and interest in botany would allow him to discern the flavours if he tasted them blindfolded.
"Can you switch around your shift?" he heard, just as he was getting used to the silence and considering all of the things John might be able to deduce with one sense temporarily stripped away.
"No," John said, and Sherlock was pleased with the promptness of the rejection. "I can't. But I could come by afterwards, if you think you'll still be out?"
"That would be great," Irene said without a sulk, and Sherlock nearly tore the bread with the peanut butter knife.
"Am I going to have to have a word with this Bellamy character?" John asked.
She moaned quietly again, as if John were removing her vertebrae with deft, delicate hands and not just rubbing her strained muscles. "Bellamy just needs a reminder that he's not irresistible. Come, and you'll crush him." She did not sound displeased by the notion.
John's voice was light. "Most blokes aren't intimidated by the sight of me."
That was because most men, as Sherlock had said ad infinitum, were idiots who didn't bother taking a second look to see the soldier still lurking in John's compact frame. John was a secret only a select few got to know.
Sherlock reasoned that Mycroft would already have procured a ticket to the benefit for himself, and that John would lump all classical music together – as if vocal and instrumental music were analogous – and believe Sherlock was deeply interested in opera simply because he played the violin, and so made sure he received the second free ticket allotted to Irene for the night of the benefit. Irene had left the flat hours earlier, and John wandered into the kitchen; he was wearing the pink shirt Sherlock had got him for Christmas as well as a pair of form-fitting and expensive-looking charcoal trousers.
"What do you think, Sherlock? Tie and waistcoat, or will I look a giant prat?"
"You're Romeo's boyfriend, John. Dress however you wish; she will still come home with you." He didn't bother to look up from the website he was reading, though he knew to a millimetre how close John was to him.
John's proximity allowed him to determine that, though he wore no cologne, his intrinsic scent of warm earth was not only overlaid with the aroma of clean laundry but also muddled by a sweetness very like some kind of spicy honey. Irene was even in John's very pores, assailing Sherlock's senses, and he longed to know if he'd had as essential an effect on John's scent. To him, John had always smelt like tea and warm, rich things, but what fragrance had clung to him before?
"Sherlock," John said, gently but firmly drawing his attention with a hand on his forearm; Sherlock wished he hadn't rolled up his sleeves earlier, as the pads of John's fingers were perfectly placed to measure his heart rate, already accelerated by thoughts of John's scent emanating from his pulse-points. "Help me out, please. You haven't got a case on, so you can read about spiders later, can't you?"
John most likely looked terribly winning as he pleaded; Sherlock kept his eyes firmly fastened on the laptop.
"T he spider in question appears to be an entirely new species within the genus Cyclosa, and able to understand what its predators are looking for; it outwits them, John. This is not a matter of mere camouflage or poison, some happenstance of evolution that ameliorated the protection of the species. This small spider constructs an exaggerated simulacrum of itself out of miniscule bits of leaf, debris, and insect carcasses and then rocks its web to make the large dummy-spider appear alert and alive."
John's face crinkled delightfully into a warm and amused smile. "Is this your way of telling me that appearances don't matter and I should just be myself?" His mirth slipped when Sherlock didn't respond in kind. "Hey, what is it?"
"What are you doing with her, John?" he asked, then foolishly shut his eyes as though he could ward off the effects of his own stupidity. If he had to hear the words, that would be bad enough; knowing that John would only utter the words if he'd considered them carefully was even worse, because John would not be less than sincere.
"Trying to get dressed for the opera," said John, kind John, trying to give him a plausible escape. Sherlock shook his head, determined to have it out with him since the moment had come upon them. "I'm in love with her, Sherlock. I love her and she's said the same to me."
He could not ask directly what about me?, not yet; he fumbled to find a detour that would keep him reasonably close.
"You didn't appear to be missing anything before she showed up. You'd broken it off with Anna and seemed quite content to be without a sexual partner." He sounded injured, even to his own ears, which was wretched, but the thought of being cast aside was worse.
"No, I –" It was ghastly, watching John flush and fumble for words when he'd only ever been straightforward. "Anna and I were never in love, Sherlock. We were two people who'd lost loved ones who turned to each other for a little support, a little comfort; that can be all that gets you through the day sometimes, knowing someone else you trust is going through the same thing."
"So my return was the catalyst for your breakup, as it turned out you hadn't lost me." Something inside him was positively singing at the ease with which John had named him as a beloved.
"No, it wasn't going to last – we fell into a relationship as an alternative to being alone, which isn't the best way to go about it."
It wasn't entirely convincing, because he'd heard John and Anna coupling with vigour and enthusiasm and even laughter, on the sofa where John now kissed Irene. What made her different? "And Irene is not just another way to stave off life as a technically single man?"
"'Technically single'?" John asked, his brow wrinkling in confusion as he gazed up at Sherlock. His hand had drifted to Sherlock's ribcage, a tender touch that made him acutely aware of the power of this man. "What does that mean?"
"I mean," Sherlock said, wetting his lips and watching John do the same reflexively, "that I am here, requiting your feelings for me, and thus you are not alone, or 'single.'" He cut himself off, wanting John to reach the inevitable conclusion for himself: Irene was simply unnecessary.
John's worry did not diminish, and his eyes seemed to dim – ridiculous sentiment. "I do love you. That's what I'm saying; as strong a hold as you have on me, she's got an equal one, and asking me to choose is not . . . not something I can . . . do. I've been trying so hard to keep things on an even keel, everybody coexisting peacefully. I thought . . . it was going well." John had never lacked for courage. He met Sherlock's gaze squarely, his hands clasped behind his back. "Do you want me to move out of the flat?"
"No!" Sherlock snapped. Was John using a gambit, or was he genuinely that worried about the mutual indifference Sherlock and Irene felt? Drastic measures needed to be taken to ensure that that pyrrhic victory was avoided at all costs. "I hadn't realised our arrangement was taking such a toll on you. I am sure we can endeavour to make things run more smoothly around here."
"Well," John said, and lost control of his face for a moment before he pursed his lips and looked back up at Sherlock with suspiciously glossy eyes. "Helping me dress would be a step in the right direction."
John, it transpired, listened to Irene very differently than he did Sherlock. Perhaps because Irene sang words and stories, which would appeal to John as a writer? Sherlock sat dazzled by the way John looked in his three-piece suit, silky garnet tie accenting the pink of his shirt, leaning forward and watching intently. When Romeo fenced, John's body went taut, as if he were coiling the power within himself deliberately; when Romeo sang his delight in Juliet, John's lips parted invitingly. Sherlock scrubbed at his face in a gesture lifted from John's repertoire, eager to deny the comparison in which he fell short, and John flashed a sideways glance of empathy at him, no doubt having deluded himself that Sherlock was as moved by the story as he was.
John jittered through the intermission while Sherlock pulled up the pitch-pipe app on his mobile that he used to tune his violin. Juliet had been off by one small chromatic step, but Irene – of course, it was all so predictable – had been precise; he grimly added "perfect pitch" to the list of attributes that, taken together, were enough to enchant John Watson.
Of course there was a champagne reception yet to be endured even after the lovers were in their supposedly untimely graves; Mycroft found them and laid one hand on John's bicep as if to intimate that John had endured something momentous by sitting in the audience as his girlfriend sang. Sherlock wondered if John had been as struck as he was by the difference in power Irene displayed in singing on stage than when she bounced around the flat, singing that ghastly novelty song John had bought her "on vinyl," as if that were a rare treat; John grinned every time she sang the descant I'm gonna make your life so sweet, so presumably the gift had fulfilled its true purpose.
A rapturous round of applause saved him from further speculation, a few pompous fools who prided themselves on their cultural superiority shouting "Brava!" as Irene and Mary appeared, both in bright frocks and heels. They curtsied to the conductor, presumably the odious Bellamy, who'd already acquired a clique of followers, and then made for John, Irene leading the charge.
"Darling, you were –" John said before tilting his head up to meet Irene's mouth; her thick, squared heels gave her three inches on him, and Sherlock considered how the experience might vary based on the parties' relative heights. Irene pulled back, perhaps belatedly remembering the sizeable audience.
"Mary, hello, you were sublime," John said as suavely as a man could with a mouth stained the same shade as his tie.
Mary inclined her head graciously; given the size of the diamond solitaire adorning each tragus and lobe, Sherlock was rather surprised she could move at all.
"Sherlock, Mycroft, this is Mary Morstan, our ravishing Juliet," Irene said. Sherlock levelled one long look at her, pleased when she took the hint and turned instead to Mycroft, who smoothly filled in all of the niceties Sherlock had long since discarded.
Sherlock tuned the two of them out and listened to John instead, who was murmuring, "You were incandescent, love. Simply magnificent."
"It went better in Philly, but the audience here is more appreciative," Irene said, squeezing John around the waist. "I've got to go mingle. Do you want to wait, or . . . ?"
"Early shift in five hours. Enjoy your triumph," John said easily, drawn forward for another, quicker kiss by Irene's fingertips in the slim pocket of his waistcoat. Sherlock turned on his heel the moment they broke apart, more than ready to settle into a cab and be on his way home.
His skill at hailing cabs was a bit of an inside joke between them, and Sherlock gulped gratefully at the biting night air as he threw his arm up. It was a pity he couldn't direct the flow of all of the other vehicles as well; their cab hit a wall of traffic, and he and John were consigned to wait for unanticipated minutes. Sherlock knew he was pressing his luck but couldn't keep himself from leaping into the great unknown regardless. He kept his eyes down, locked on the burnish of John's shoes, while he considered.
"Isn't it all rather quick?"
John was halfway through a yawn, as if he'd been abruptly deserted by whatever adrenaline had got him through the performance. "What's quick?"
"You and Irene. Love." Mycroft had always told him off for picking at his scabs, which had mostly been self-inflicted in the name of science, and it seemed that the habit had not been broken. This was going to be punishing; John was not going to take back all those moments of joy Sherlock had witnessed and claim that Irene was just a shag toy or a gimcrack girlfriend. John genuinely loved her.
Still, he could not help pushing.
"You, deciding to spend the rest of your life with her." Even as he said it, he remembered the sight of John, shrouding himself in a cloak of innocence and shielding his decisive action by falling into parade rest, on that distant night when he'd shot the murderous cabbie; John had been just as quick to declare allegiance to him – with a bullet instead of a kiss.
John snapped upright abruptly, then sank back, as if wearied by the subject, which only went in circles. His eyes went to the cabbie, safely removed from the conversation by a partition, and he began to speak. With glass enclosing them on three sides and the leather of the seat swallowing John's quiet words, the backseat took on something of the hush and sanctity of the confessional – dreadful superstition that Sherlock fully appreciated for the first time, locked there in that near-silence with John.
"It's even quicker than you think. I think I knew, that first time I met her, that we were . . . I don't know how to put it. Not akin, but not strangers either. Just that there were two of us in alliance, that I could have that with her."
"Sex." Sherlock said it with finality, meaning to drop a curtain on the conversation.
John didn't let it lie. He shifted a bit, and Sherlock was assailed by a reminder that Irene had known John when his shoulder was unscarred and his sense of purpose crystalline in its clarity, that she had even more knowledge on her side than what he could deduce. "Reaching out and knowing someone else is there, wanting to touch you, to make you happy – that's what sex can be." There was nothing in that description that didn't pertain to Sherlock; he shouldn't be precluded from stroking John's hair or touching John's skin just because he had no interest in penetration.
"Don't be romantic, John. It also involves contact that might very well be unwelcome or overwhelming or unpleasant." As well to touch pitch and be defiled – so he had always thought, until John had settled determinedly into his life.
"Yes," John granted readily. "Look, what is it you want me to say? I love her differently than I love you, and I can't separate that out into mind and body."
"Could you not?" he asked softly, as close as he would let himself get to begging.
John's eyes were fathomless and wide in the gloom of the cab and Sherlock read his answer in those dark depths.
Sherlock was making notes for his Index on the Porlock case – fantastic, having a single person play the roles of abductor, abductee, witness, killer, and victim – when a thud from upstairs claimed his attention. John was at work, and surely Irene had not brought someone else into the flat?
He stole up the stairs, listening to a frustrated muttering that was not as quiet as it could have been, had she really not wanted an audience. He pushed the door open but stayed in the doorway, surveying the cramped space of John's bedroom.
"What are you doing?" he asked crisply, and she jumped a bit, sending another stack of scores crashing down. That was the sound he had heard from below.
"I can't find my power adapter," she whined, waving some hideous thing in his face despite the assertion; it was a flat piece of corduroy cloth, patterned in a violent paisley, which for some reason had an electrical cord dangling from one edge.
"And that is . . . ?"
"My heating pad! Oh, you can find my adapter, can't you? Please, I'm cramping up a storm and feeling like someone went after my belly with an aluminum baseball bat."
He frowned, trying to ignore the histrionics to recollect what he had seen of the American pastime. "I thought those bats were made of wood?" Americans wanted everything to be natural all the time, as if an element were somehow more artificial than a harvested part of a living organism. "Why are you specifying aluminium?"
"Because it feels like the hits are still reverberating," she enunciated exaggeratedly, as if she were speaking to an idiot, when she was the one too stupid to acknowledge his correction of her atrocious pronunciation. "Look, can you figure out where the adapter might have gone or not?"
He strode to the closet, pulling it open to see John's shirts relegated to only half of the hanging space, to make room for Irene's wardrobe, more extensive than her borrowings would suggest. He eyed the clothing – she evidently favoured bright colours and had a range of black clothes that perpetuated the stereotype of New Yorkers – and lost all interest. Finding the adapter would mean she would sit near an outlet, and the most convenient was in the living room; far better to provide a solution that would not encourage proximity.
"If all you require is heat," he said, "John has a hot-water bottle."
"God, he's a genius," she muttered fervently, which Sherlock thought was rather missing the point. She dropped the heating pad on the bed as he turned to John's bureau, pulling out the top drawer confidently. There, under a stack of John's plain white vests – an unopened packet of six resting on top – was the scarlet wool of the cosy sheathing the rubber. "Thank you thank you thank you!" she said, snatching it from his hand the moment his fingers had closed around it to draw it from its spot.
She fled the room, presumably to fill the bottle, and Sherlock was left to take in the changes she had wrought in John's room. There was a bottle of lotion and a brightly coloured notebook on the bedside table, some patterned scarves rumpled on the top of the bureau, and a hairbrush with wiry black hairs trapped in its bristles. Her suitcases were gathering dust under the bed, and Sherlock moodily prodded one with his toe before retreating.
He returned to the living room and picked up John's laptop once more. Fred Porlock had been well worth memorialising. It was rather a pity Sherlock had not known him before, in order to determine the deterioration – or amelioration – of his thought processes by his condition.
"Is there no junk food in this kitchen?" Irene said plaintively, shuffling into the living room with John's thick blue blanket wrapped around her. "Never mind – look who I'm talking to. You barely eat even when John begs you, and you wouldn't recognise a craving if it jumped up and bit your butt."
"You are sorely mistaken if you believe that the gibberish spewing from your mouth is at all intelligible," he said, eager to stem the tide of speech.
She did cease her whining, though he could feel her speculative gaze on his skin. "Hey, Sherlock," she said after a few minutes' respite, "want to do an experiment?"
He raised his head, keeping a disdainful look on his face to disguise the fact that his interest was piqued. "Well?" he prompted.
"You could go get some chocolate – good chocolate – and measure the effect it has on the temperament of a woman experiencing menstrual cramps."
That was unexpected. Transparent as glass, of course, but he had never had a willing female test subject. This particular experiment might not be completely worthless; there were processes women underwent that men did not. He wondered briefly if menstruation had a mental component, then recalled all the advertisements he'd seen – large-eyed women looking startled and embarrassed by their own functions, then improbably blue liquid poured onto a pad or wicking up a small cloth cylinder, and finally the same women dancing or biking or running happily – and concluded there was not. So he would not simply be repeating his success in ridding John of his psychosomatic limp; if he could affect Irene's cycle, it would be his mind mastering a purely biological function.
He smiled in anticipation. He needed to establish a control, and the duration of this cycle should be sufficient. "No."
"John will bring me chocolate today," she shot back, fumbling for her mobile.
"You'll still have to wait until his shift is over," Sherlock said triumphantly.
"Fine," she said, abandoning the search for her phone and tucking the blanket firmly around her body. "I can barely move, anyway. Do your worst."
"What do you normally do to combat your cramps? Surely a woman your age would have worked out a system to handle a monthly occurrence?"
"I lie around and eat comfort food and watch terrible movies. What have you got?"
"No prepared food, as John's cooking kick has inexplicably persisted, leading him to stock only ingredients."
"You could do a little shopping and cooking, too, you know," she cut in.
He continued as if she hadn't interrupted. "And there are no films on DVD in the flat. You could watch television –"
"You guys only get three channels, and there aren't even commercials for bathroom breaks. No thanks." She had an idea, he could see from the enterprising glint in her eye. "What I need is to be entertained."
"Play John's records, or your own iPod."
"That'll make me want to either dance or rehearse. No, I need someone else to do all of the work, and I'm too scattered to read anything good." She grinned at him, as shameless as John could be at his most puckish. "Play for me?"
He considered the request, evidently more seriously than she had anticipated; her face was wonderfully expressive, and surely this was a chance to determine how a professional musician rated his musical ability? "Very well."
"Seriously?" she asked, sitting bolt upright. "Wait, I need food first. Can I make you anything?"
He shook his head impatiently and set aside the laptop before rising to fetch his instrument.
For all her talk of passivity, she listened intently, breathing only when he did, making him the focus of her whole attention. Only her fingers moved without conscious thought, pulling apart the sandwich she had made, breaking it into smaller and smaller scalene triangles.
This same entry also appears on Dreamwidth, at http://innie-darling.dreamwidth.org/426642.html.