Guardian of the Peace

A Game

"Are you sure you want to play this game?" - Professor James Moriarty, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

"Just to reiterate," John grumbled as he parked the car in front of 221B Baker Street, "I don't approve of absconding with evidence."

Sherlock rolled his eyes and unbuckled his safety belt, "Once again, I shall repeat that we are not 'absconding'. We are simply delaying the time in which the evidence will be mauled by incompetents." He hopped out onto the curb, clutching his prize to his chest. "Also, just for your information, I loathe repetition."

"What was that?" John asked as he trotted around the boot of the car, heading for the door of the building.

"I said I loathe," Sherlock caught the grin that spread over his Guardian's face as the man walked passed him. "You aren't funny."

"Don't be ridiculous, I'm hilarious." Flashing that boyish grin, John opened the front door and held it open so Sherlock could carry the bright pink suitcase into the house. "By the way, fair warning, if we get arrested or whatever I plan on shanking you in the prison yard."

"First of all, I'm not entirely sure what the latter half of that sentence meant." The detective lowered his brow in confusion before he smiled sharkishly, "Second of all, you assume that Mycroft would ever allow me to go to prison."

As they mounted the seventeen steps up into the flat, Sherlock felt oddly content. His previous Guardians usually radioed into the main Provost communication channel or contacted Lestrade directly, and his new-found evidence would be swept away in moments. Despite all of John's mutterings to the contrary though, he still was complying with Sherlock's wishes. Granted, they had argued about if for almost the entire walk back to the car and the entire ride back to the flat, but it was still nice to get what he wanted.

Tipping over one of the tables in the living room, Sherlock let everything on it fall to the floor – it was a lot easier than simply clearing a spot. Behind him, John sighed in protest but didn't bother verbally admonishing the action, turning instead to hang his coat up behind the door. With a flourish, Sherlock flipped open the lid of the case and delved into the contents.

"Make-up bag, clothes, feminine products," the consultant mumbled to himself as he removed the items inside and placed them in neat rows on the table. When everything was out of the case, he looked up to where his Guardian now sat and beamed. "No datalet."

Chin resting in his left hand, John was leaning his left elbow on the arm of the plaid chair nearest the kitchen. He raised an eyebrow at Sherlock's enthusiasm but otherwise did not speak. Ignoring the silence, Sherlock tossed his own coat over the back of his leather armchair and then perched in it, feet on the seat cushion, like a suited crow.

"Give me your datalet," the consultant held out a hand imperiously.

"What's wrong with yours?" John asked, not complying.

"My text ID number is on my website. Someone could recognise it." Sherlock clasped his hands together beneath his chin, resting his elbows on his knees.

They sat in silence for about two minutes before John sighed and lifted his datalet out of his lap and handed it over. Beaming, Sherlock tapped out a series of numbers onto the screen, then passed it back to the doctor. "John, send these words exactly: What happened last night? I must have blacked out. Twenty-two Northumberland Street, please come."

Infuriatingly slowly, John tapped out the letters. "You said 'Northumberland' right?"

"Yes," Sherlock snapped. "Hurry up. Have you sent it yet?"

"Keep your pants on," John grumbled. "Okay, I sent it." He paused, then glanced over the edge of his screen with a puzzled frown. "Why did I send it?"

"It wasn't in her coat pocket, and it wasn't in her suitcase. A woman like her, keeping a string of lovers and, judging by her choice of dress she occupied a very visible position, something public like a reporter or a television personality? She would never let something as valuable to her life as her datalet out of her sight. So, where is it?"

Silent, John glanced unsteadily between his datalet and Sherlock's face. A new call re-lit the screen and the words 'unknown number' flashed in the caller ID window. Letting out a gusty, irate sigh the doctor fixed a glare on his charge, "Did you just have me text a murderer?"

"A normal person, someone who just found something as glaringly personalized as a pink datalet, would ignore a text like that. But what," Sherlock's mouth twisted in a wicked smirk, "about her killer? A message like that, which could only have come from her? The killer, he would panic!" The detective hopped up off his chair like a jack-in-the-box, rushing into his coat and out the door.

Behind him, John rolled his eyes with a groan and gave chase, rumbling almost two steps behind as Sherlock darted down the stairs. Sherlock only paused out on the pavement, practically vibrating with impatience as the doctor locked up the front door behind them. Instead of trying to hop in the car, Sherlock turned down the street, moving with swift strides of his long legs.

"Aren't we going to take the car?" John asked as moved to a brisk walk to keep up.

"Please, Northumberland Street is barely a five minute walk from here." Practically glowing, Sherlock flashed a grin to the man beside him. "Oh, I love all the smart ones. Always so eager, so sure. It's their downfall – they always slip up."

"The smart ones slip up?""Of course. Smart killers always want an audience, want to be noticed. Genius thrives on attention."John snorted and murmured, "That explains a lot."

A grin slipped over Sherlock's lips as they crossed the street. He glanced sidelong at the doctor beside him and stated, "There's a nice little Italian place across the street from number twenty-two. We can have a bit of dinner whilst we wait for our killer to make an appearance."

"Did you actually just say the word 'whilst'?"

Chuckling, Sherlock led John passed four store fronts before coming to the door of a comfortable looking restaurant. Once inside, the consultant immediately slid into a chair at the corner table beside the half-frosted front window. A half-second later, John settled uncomfortably into the chair opposite his charge, with his back to the front door. Sherlock kept his eyes on the street, watching John's reflection in the window out of the corner of his eye as a waiter dropped off a pair of menus.

"Is it where we're sitting, that I sat down without the host bringing me to a table, or that we have yet to tell Lestrade about the suitcase?"

John hummed questioningly, his eyebrows twitching upwards as he looked up from the menu in his hand. Placing the single sheet back down on the table, he rubbed a finger along the tense muscle behind his right ear. He opened his mouth once, closed it, and instead of speaking again he made a rumbling sound in his throat that sounded questioning.

"I was alluding to your nervousness and trying to ascertain its cause." Sherlock laced his fingers under his chin. At the slow blink of stony denial that fell over John's face, he rattled off, "Your eyes keep shifting and your neck keeps tensing, as if you want to keep looking the place over, and I can see your ears twitching at every sound. You hesitated after I sat down without waiting for Billy to bring me to a seat, and then you sat down as if you were expecting the chair to come to life beneath you. You've squared your shoulders since you sat down, and the muscle in your jaw is ticking beneath your cheek as you grind your teeth." Tilting his head to one side, Sherlock spread his hands out with a flourish, like a magician awaiting an applause after performing a particularly challenging illusion.

The corner of John's mouth twitched up, "I can't decide if I should applaud or slug you."

Sherlock frowned, "I'm sorry, what do mucus-covered invertebrates have to do with anything?"

"What?" John looked genuinely puzzled. He then smiled as his brows lifted when he understood their misunderstanding. "Sorry. I meant when you do that, that thing you do where you see everything, I can't decide if I should clap or hit you."

"You wish to hit me," Sherlock tried to clarify, speaking slowly, "with mucous-covered invertebrates?"

"Nevermind," John rolled his eyes. "To answer your question it's mostly having my back to the door. You do remember that I recently returned from war, right?"

Looking down at the table, duly chastised, Sherlock opened his mouth to answer. He was cut off as a jovial voice proclaimed, "Sherlock!"

Both men looked up to see an older Italian man with silver hair, dressed all in black with a plain black apron around his waist, approaching their table. He threw an arm around Sherlock's shoulders and gave the detective a friendly shake. As Sherlock smiled blandly, he saw John tense completely, all his Guardian's attention focused on the touch. Inwardly, Sherlock grinned – no doubt in his mind that should he show any inclination that the embrace was unwanted, or if it were to turn violent, John would retaliate swiftly.

"John, this Angelo. He owns this restaurant."

Angelo placed his other hand over his heart and gave Sherlock another little shake. "This man here, he save my life!" He stood aside, releasing Sherlock's shoulders, and clasped his hands in front of his chest, "Anything you want, I make it for you myself. É gratuito!"

One of John's ash-blond eyebrows rose. He glanced questioningly at his charge. Sherlock smiled wryly and said, "He said 'it's free'."

"I know what 'É gratuito' means." John's pronunciation was more than passable, much to Sherlock's surprise. "I was wondering more about the life-saving part."

Angelo braced his strong arms on the table, leaning down. He pointed to Sherlock's chest and said, low and with feeling, "He proved my innocence."

With a roll of his eyes, Sherlock snapped in admonishment "I proved you were a burglar." He turned his eyes to John's curious face. "Angelo was once accused of committing a rather vicious triple murder. I managed to gather evidence which proved he was actually in a different part of town house breaking at the time the victims had been killed."

"If it were not for this incredible man," Angelo wrapped an arm around Sherlock's shoulders again, causing John's lips to twitch at the corners as he fought off an amused smile, "I would have gone to prison."

"Angelo," Sherlock gripped the bridge of his nose as he stated wearily, "you did go to prison."

The restauranteur paused for a moment, completely silent, then clapped and stated, "I will bring you a candle for the table. Much more romantic for your date!"

John looked slightly alarmed, then hissed at Angelo's retreating back, "I'm not his date!"

Hiding a smirk behind his water glass, Sherlock flicked the corner of John's menu. "You might as well eat something since we don't know how long we'll be here.Dutifully, John picked the menu back up and stared at it, a low growl rumbling in his throat. He looked up when Angelo returned with a candle, and rolled his eyes. Laughing inwardly, Sherlock turned his eyes back to the world outside the window. Billy the waiter returned and accepted John's quiet order for ravioli before glancing at Sherlock and just taking the menus and moving along. John sighed quietly, staring into the candle flame.

"This happen to you a lot?" John asked calmly.

"Waiting for a murderer to slip up and fall into my trap? No, not often."

"I meant the candle, Poirot." John leaned forward in his seat, and Sherlock could see him sweep a calculating gaze over the interior of the restaurant. "Wouldn't want to cramp your style or whatever. Is there a girlfriend or something you cart out to dinner here?"

Confused, Sherlock took his eyes briefly off the street to glance at his table companion. There was nothing but curiosity in John's countenance. A bit shocked at the social, friendly question, Sherlock answered quietly, "No. Not really my area."

"Boyfriend then?"

Unused to the sincere questioning, Sherlock was at a loss at how to answer. He was used to people asking him questions in order to discover and exploit his weaknesses. Genuine interest was etched in the lines of John's face. Was it some attempt at camaraderie? Was he just a very good liar? Was he flirting?

Uncomfortable and trying not to show it, Sherlock licked his lips and stared down at the candle on the table. Quietly he stated, "Your interest is flattering but I consider myself married to my work."

Leaning back with a look of shock on his face, John said, "I wasn't coming on to you. I was just, you know, wondering about your daily life." His brows contracted in concern. "I'm supposed to be your personal body guard, and a live-in one at that. I just was wondering if there was going to be some tension because you had a steady partner coming around." He shrugged. "I didn't want to get in the way."

"Oh." Sherlock blinked. He hadn't thought about that at all. "I do not indulge in personal relationships of that calibre. They would be detrimental to the work."

"Okay," John shrugged again and turned his attention back to the people walking by on the street.

Sherlock watched him for a few moments, amazed and unable to comprehend John's complete nonchalance. He wasn't sure if he should be angry, concerned, content, or depressed that that was the end of the conversation. A flash of street light off the onyx edge of a cab roof caught his eye, and he watched it park beside the address across the street. The black London taxi switched off it's fare light and just sat there.

The light of Sherlock's intellect flickered on with a vengeance. All the victims had been found in places they weren't supposed to be, in parts of the city no one would expect them to be. They had been abducted off the streets, but no one had seen them disappear. There were no calls to the emergency services about a person in distress being taken somewhere against their will.

"Oh, now, that is elegant," Sherlock breathed. Across from him, John hummed inquisitively. Smiling wickedly, the consultant said, "I give you the perfect abductor – the London Cab."

John's brow contracted as he stared hard across the street at the cab. As he watched the idling cab move to the alley across the way and just sit there. Two people who tried to hop in were turned away. He said softly, "Sherlock, I'm not following you. He's probably just eating his dinner."

Sighing, Sherlock snapped, "Who do we trust implicitly to get us where we're going? Who's vehicles do we enter, without thinking, when we are drunk or lost or in a rush? They pass through the streets like spectres, innocuous and invisible, until they are needed."

Comprehension dawned on John's face as Sherlock's words washed over him. He turned back to the window, staring at the idling taxi. Sherlock could see, in the reflection of the window, that John's pupils were expanding as he focused his powerful sight across the street. Another young woman walked up to the driver's side of the car and they held their breath until she was turned away.

"Angelo!" The consultant shouted suddenly. "A glass of white, please!"

As if summoned by magic, Angelo appeared with a glass of white wine and handed it over to Sherlock. Both the restaurateur and John watched, speechless, as Sherlock splashed the wine over his face, stood up, and artfully skewed his coat, scarf, and shirt. He then tousled his hair a bit and clapped Angelo on the shoulders.

"The headless nun again, if you please?" Sherlock asked.

"Now that was a case," Angelo nodded happily, pushing up his shirtsleeves over his elbows. Grabbing Sherlock by his coat lapels, the portly Italian started to push and shove him towards the door. "Out of my restaurant, you stupid, filthy drunk! Vai!"

John stared, flabbergasted, as Angelo tossed Sherlock out the front door and into the street. He rose to his feet to follow, only to be held back by Angelo's meaty arm barring the doorway. As Sherlock meandered and stumbled across the street, John grabbed hold of the Italian's arm, pulled it up behind the restaurant owner's back, and shoved him into the door jamb.

"What the hell is he doing?" The Guardian hissed into Angelo's ear.

"Per finge!" Angelo stuttered fearfully. "It's pretend! Don't worry! Sherlock has a plan, you will see!"

A growl rumbled deep in John's throat, causing Angelo to shake. Turning to glare out the window, John watched Sherlock fumble his way through traffic and begin knocking on the window of the cab. Cursing under his breath, John released Angelo from his grip and slipped out the door.

As John stalked up the block, focusing his eyes and ears on what was going on near the suspiciously parked cab, Sherlock rattled out the beginning of 'Shave and a Haircut' on its driver side window. He swayed dangerously and drawled out, in a passable Yorkshire accent, "C'mon mate. Two-two-one-bee Buh-baker street."

The cab driver rolled down his window and huffed angrily, "Piss off, mate, can't choo see the light?"

"Aow, c'mon, s'just 'round the corner!" Sherlock leaned halfway into the cab. "Help a bloke out, aye?"

"I said piss off! Not takin' fares now!"

Lolling his whole body to the left, Sherlock propped himself against the rear driver side door and pulled his datalet out of his pocket. Hitting a few keys, he dialled out the number for the murder victim and let it ring. There was no sound of a ringtone from inside the cab, and when he turned his head back around there was no sign of a glowing screen inside the vehicle anywhere. Shaking his head in anger, Sherlock stalked away from the car and headed back towards the restaurant.

In the middle of the pelican crossing, he nearly ran into a stone-faced John Watson, who snagged him by the elbow and began steering him homeward. Sherlock felt very awkward as John lead him away like a small child. He flashed back to a time when he was eight years old on the family estate, when the butler was marching him home after he had fallen into the fish pond trying to get a sample of pond scum. This night probably wasn't going to end with him getting scolded by his mother after being hosed off though.

"Well, at least we know he wasn't the cabby we were looking for," Sherlock offered softly.

John stopped moving, causing his charge to stumble to a halt. When their eyes locked together John spat out, in a clipped voice, "What. The. Fuck. Is wrong with you?"

"I was," the consultant was cut off by John's hand slicing sharply through the air.

"You know what? Not here." John tightened his grip on Sherlock's elbow and started moving forward again. "We're going back to the flat, and then you are going to tell me just what the hell was going through your stupid head."

Sherlock opened his mouth to argue, but something about the way John's jaw squared mulishly quieted any protest he might have given. A petulant pout twisted his mouth and the consultant shoved his hands into his coat pockets as they trudged along. John kept completely silent for the rest of the walk.

Once safely back inside the front door of the flat, John and Sherlock hung up their coats, and the Guardian planted himself in front of the staircase up to their living room. Sherlock started to head around him, but stopped when John propped his hands on his hips and refused to be moved. He was so close to John he could almost hear the doctor's teeth grinding. Something in the air stretched taut, and the hair on the back of Sherlock's neck stood on end.

"Now," John's voice was down to as low an octave as he could manage and a growl threaded through the sound. "Explain to me just what in the Sam Hill could have been goin' through yo' fuckin' head to make you hand y'self over to a possible murderer?"

Brow furrowing, Sherlock had to focus on the words to continue understanding through John's accent slippage. He pointed out, "I didn't hand myself over to him as he wasn't the murderer. He didn't have her datalet. What is a 'Sam Hill' by the way?"

"It's an expression," John snarled, his teeth gritting as he tried to keep control over his accent. "What if he had been the murderer and you'd gotten into his car? Hmmm? I'm fast, but I can't keep up with a damn car, not even a slow ass London cab. Seriously! What the hell were you thinking!?"

"I was thinking I'd caught the murderer. It seems I hadn't. What kind of expression?"

"Forget about the frickin' expression! Why would," John's rant was cut off as Mrs Hudson slowly entered the hall from her room, wringing her hands.

"Oh Sherlock," she asked sadly, "what have you done?"

Puzzled, both the consultant and his Guardian asked at the same moment, "What's the matter, Mrs Hudson?"

All three of the occupants of the foyer shared a shocked look at each other from the synchronized speech. Mrs Hudson regained herself first and stated, "The police are upstairs in your flat!"

John and Sherlock shared a quick look of confusion before darting up the stairs and into the flat. In the middle of their living room Provost Marshal Lestrade was reading something on his datalet, leaning back in Sherlock's preferred armchair. Several provosts walked back and forth through and around the room, looking beneath cushions and poking around books.

Sergeant Donovan leaned out around the kitchen doorway and, in a voice equal parts incredulous and disgusted, said, "Sir, there's a bowl of eyeballs in the microwave!"

"It's an experiment! Put those back!" Sherlock shouted. "What the devil is going on in here, Lestrade?"

The Marshal nonchalantly let his datalet swing down in his hand so he could take in the confounded look on Sherlock's face. "Well, technically it's a drugs bust."

"I am clean!" Sherlock bellowed, which caused the rest of the people to stop moving and look to Lestrade.

In the ensuing quiet Anderson's slightly horrified voice drifted out from the kitchen, "Why's there a pan of rat heads in the oven?"

"Keep looking everyone," the Marshal ordered calmly, turning back to his datalet screen. "Who knows what we're going to find in here. Perhaps some 'misplaced' evidence?"

Sherlock turned pale with rage as he stalked over to stand in front of the Marshal. "You cannot just barge in here and start going through my personal belongings without my consent!"

"And you," Lestrade dragged himself to his feet, "can't withhold evidence! It's an active murder investigation, Sherlock, for God's sake! I have a job to do, and you making off with potentially pertinent pieces of evidence is only going to make everything that much harder!"

"You have two seconds to explain, Lestrade, or I'm going to have Watson throw every last one of you out of here!""Actually," both men turned to see the aforementioned Guardian leaning casually against the wall between the front door of the flat and the kitchen, "I'm more interested in the answer to the 'rat heads in the oven' question. Although, an explanation as to why you think this guy," he indicated Sherlock with a point of his thumb, "is a druggie would also be welcome."Taking a large step to bring himself back in front of John, Sherlock hissed, "Not now, John!"

The Guardian's eyes widened in shock, then narrowed in disbelief, "No. Seriously. You?""Shut up!" Sherlock huffed.

"Look," Lestrade groaned, "Sherlock we're on the same side here, so can we just work together?"

Reeling back around, Sherlock practically thrust his face into the Marshal's, "Fine! Get your filthy idiot minions out of my flat and we can talk."

"That's more like it." Lestrade's voice was friendly, but a bit tired. "Wrap it up, people! Get a move on! Anderson, don't forget to take that suitcase?"

"He'd forget his own head if," Sherlock snapped his mouth shut as John's hand closed around his elbow and drew him towards the sofa. He opened his mouth to argue again when John gave him the same sort of 'that's enough out of you, young man' glare that his grandmother used to fix on him. Apparently, the look was just as effective on the face of a short army doctor as it was on that of a severe old woman. Like a surly teenager, Sherlock frowned and crossed his arms over his chest, refusing to speak further until the other Provosts had vacated the room.

Lestrade smiled tiredly at the sight. Who knew it only took a proper glare to silence the obstinately verbose consultant? Instead of remarking on it, lest he break the spell of John's influence, he ventured, "We found out who Rachel is." He only continued when Sherlock looked him in the eye, "She's the daughter of one, Jennifer Wilson, our victim. Aborted four years ago due to complications with the pregnancy."

"Why would she carve her dead daughter's name into the floor while she was dying?" Sherlock asked, looking genuinely confused.

"Guilt, maybe?" John ventured.

Sherlock looked up at him, "It was four years ago, why would she still be upset?" He waited for an answer, but all he got was Lestrade giving him a look part disgust and part shock, and John furrowing his brow in concern. Furrowing his brow slightly, he glanced up at John and asked, "Not good?"

"Bit, yeah," was the Guardian's answer, spoken in a tone that suggested it was very much not good.

"But she was clever!" Holmes popped up off the sofa and began pacing the length of the room between the other two men. "Running all those lovers, she had to be! Why would she carve her dead child's name as her last act on Earth? It took a lot of effort; it would have hurt. Instead of conserving her energy to call for help, she used her fingers to carve each letter into the wooden floor." He looked puzzled. Rounding on John, he asked suddenly, "If you were being murdered, what would you say?"

"Please, God, let me live," John answered without hesitation, his tone solemn.

Sherlock sneered, "Oh please, use your imagination!"

Almost imperceptibly, John's left shoulder rotated back as he set his jaw and answered quietly and matter-of-factly, "Don't have to."

Silence fell as Sherlock looked into the dark slate eyes of his Guardian, seeing the truth there as 'Honourably discharged due to injury' scrolled through his mind in damning Sans Serif font. Stung by his own callousness, Sherlock covered an embarrassed flush by turning his back to both men and striding to the hearth. "It doesn't make any sense. She was being murdered, she would have wanted her last act to help catch her killer, she didn't have her datalet so she scratched...Oh!"

Both Lestrade and John traded startled looks as Sherlock bounced excitedly and whipped the datalet right out of Lestrade's hand. Typing furiously, Sherlock pulled up a log-in screen and map, feeding the victim's contact information into the GPS locating site. John and Lestrade peered over each of the consultant's shoulders as a tiny dot blinked to life.

"Rachel's her password," John breathed. Lestrade swore softly in realisation.

"There's your murderer, Lestrade." Sherlock said smugly, handing the screen back to its owner. "She didn't lose her datalet, she left it behind. She was leading us to her killer after all."

"Bloody hell," Lestrade grinned wildly, "it says the bastard's just around the corner!" The Marshal took off down the stairs, barking orders for his team to start searching.

"John, please go down and warn Lestrade he's looking for a cab?" Sherlock asked, oddly polite.

With a suspicious look, John nodded and obeyed the request, slipping back down the stairs much more quietly than the Marshal had. Sherlock waited until the front door slammed shut before walking out onto the landing and leaning against the banister. A full minute later the door opened again. A much older man in a brown cap entered the foyer, closing and locking the door behind him before looking up.

"Pleasure to meet you, Mr Holmes."

Halfway down the block, something at the back of John's mind tugged at his attention. He couldn't hear or smell Sherlock anywhere in the vicinity – not with the officers bolting down the alleys trying to cut off their quarry, not with Lestrade and his two back-up officers as they raced straight down the street, and not charging along at John's heels as he followed. It's wrong, his gut warned him, that Sherlock isn't there like a bloodhound on a scent.

They find the datalet sitting on the driver's seat of an unattended black cab, and John knows they've been had. Biting back a snarl, John grabbed Lestrade by the arm and spat, "He's at the flat. Sherlock tricked us and so did the bastard cabbie."

Lestrade's steel brows crashed together almost audibly as John's words sank in. Shouting orders for half the provosts to remain with the vehicle, he ordered Anderson to call a forensic team and a tow truck. He ordered the rest waspishly to return to the consultant's flat, taking off at a run. Glancing to the side, he noticed John keeping pace, fury etched in his stony face.

"What the hell is that bloody fool thinking?" Lestrade gasped out between strides.

"The cabbie," John grumbled, "or Holmes?"

"Both," the Marshal pressed a hand to the stitch blossoming in his side.

"I don't really give a flying fuck what they're thinking." John snarled, his face sour. "I'll tell you one thing though, you might want to call an ambulance."

"Why's that?"

"Because I'm gonna beat the shit outta both of 'em when we get there."

Gasping out a laugh as they rounded the last corner, making a bee-line for the panda cars Sergeant Donovan was still watching over, Lestrade skidded to a stop. "Donovan, did you see anyone go into the flat?"

"No, Sir," Sally stated, her head leaning to the side as the radio at her shoulder hissed with static and the request for a tow truck. "Landlady came out and we chatted a bit before she headed down the block to the Chinese place for dinner." She looked a bit sheepish. "I suppose someone might have slipped in while I wasn't looking?"

Turning to the door, Lestrade watched John test the knob and curse under his breath when it wouldn't open. He heard the smaller man letting out a rumbling growl while walking back into the street, probably trying to get a look inside the upstairs windows. Whipping his datalet up, Lestrade pulled up his most frequently used number and activated his hands-free earpiece with a tap of his finger.

"Defense Home Office," a smooth, mellow voice greeted, "How may I direct your call?"

"Provost Marshal Greg Lestrade for Mr Mycroft Holmes, please. It concerns his brother. Rolling his eyes at the classical hold music that sounded promptly in his ear, Lestrade turned his eyes back to Dr Watson, who was staring in rapt concentration between Sherlock's flat and the building across the street.

Mr Jefferson Hope was a frankly forgettable man, even to someone as observant as Sherlock Holmes. Less than average height, he was dressed in all mouse colours – grey hat, brown hooded tweed jacket, brown corduroy trousers – that would have faded into the upholstery of his cab perfectly. His sloe-dark eyes seemed to stare unblinkingly out from beneath his bushy grey brows. He looked like a gecko in a cloth cap as he plopped himself into one of the chairs by the hearth.

"You do realize that they will return the moment they realize you tricked them?" Sherlock sank gracefully into his own armchair, crossing his long legs at the knee and lacing his fingers together over his stomach.

Mr Hope smiled softly, "Of course. I won't even bother running. Wouldn't be much point by then, would there?"

"So," Sherlock tilted his head a bit to one side, "why come here?"

"Curiosity." Hope shrugged, crossing his own legs as he sank back in his seat. When this answer received no more than a twitch of the consultant's brow he offered, "I didn't realise anyone was on to me, y'see, 'til I got that message on the datalet. 'S in a pink case, did joo know that? I turnt the volume down an' hid it in me glove box after I read it. I knew it wasn't 'er by the way. Made sure she was dead afore I left. I decided to go along anyways to see who was following me."

Sherlock had to bite his tongue in order to keep himself from correcting the man's horrible grammar. "Did you know who I was?"

"Oh yeah," Hope replied blithely. "The Great Sherlock Holmes, eh? Big fan of yours, I am. Follow your website and everything. Fan of yours showed me what you look like, so when I realised it was you what was trying to get into my cab, I knew I was caught."

"Why did you not turn yourself over to myself or the Provosts immediately then?"

"Where's the fun in that?" Hope uncrossed his legs and leaned over to drag the small pedestal table beside it between them. "I thought to myself, 'Oi, Jeff, where's the fun in just handing y'self over to the Provvies?' I mean, how many times is a man like me going to get to show off like this?" From the pockets of his coat he produced two identical bottles, each with a single pill inside, and placed them on the table. "I thought why get in one more before they take you in? I always wondered if I could beat a proper genius like Sherlock Holmes. Here's my chance."

Sherlock's mind whirred as he stared between the pills and his unwelcome guest. A solution presented itself and he felt the line of concentration in his forehead smooth out as his mouth twitched in one corner. "Ingenious. A little game of chance."

Hope pushed one of the bottles towards his host, smiling blandly. "It's chess, Mr Holmes, not chance. "

"It is chance, Mr Hope." Sherlock stated in a tone that brooked no argument. He wrinkled his nose. "Presenting me with a pair of dice would have been more elegant. Besides, what is to stop me from simply walking away?"

A thunderous but cunning look swept over Hope's face. Without speaking, the man pulled a gun out from the back of his waistband and held it up, the barrel pointing at Sherlock's chest. Rolling his eyes like surly teenager, the consultant laced his fingers together over his stomach. Smiling smugly, Hope gestured to the bottles on the table.

"Which pill did I give you, eh? The good one, or the bad one? Poison, or placebo?" Leaning back in his seat, the murderous cab driver waggled his pistol back and forth. "You've five seconds to choose. If you don't, I shoot you."

"Please, do us both the favour and fire."

Hope's head leaned to the side, considering. "Not afraid?"

"Of your fake gun? Of course not."

"Are you sure you want to test that?"

"Mr Hope," Sherlock leaned forward just a bit, his back ramrod straight. "You have seen my website by your own admission. You know I am an astute observer of all things related to crime. "That is a lighter, Zippo brand if I'm not mistaken, and I never am, which means the very worst you can do to me with it is perhaps singe off my eyebrows. Please, feel free to press the trigger."

A small flame shot out of the fake pistol barrel when Hope held down the trigger mechanism. He smiled pleasantly. "You are good. None of the others could tell the difference."

"Of course not," Sherlock smirked. "No one else is me."

Lestrade couldn't decide if he or Dr Watson was the more livid when Mycroft Holmes refused to authorise the use of deadly force which would allow him to call out a sniper and a SWAT team. "Please, Sir, reconsider! He's your brother! Lord knows what damage that criminal is capable of!"

"I will not reconsider, Provost Marshal," Mycroft's voice hissed sternly through the headset in Lestrade's ear. "I assure you, even should the older gentleman be armed, my brother is more than capable of handling himself accordingly. I will not have one of your ill-trained snipers firing over a public street full of civilians."

John had heard enough. Ignoring the argument, he turned his eye back to the building across the street. There were plenty of apartments up there with windows on level with Baker Street's. He wasn't just going to sit idly by and wait for permission to do his damned job.

Watching the Provosts out of the corner of his eye, John darted across the street to the opposite set of flats. He could pick out the various cameras in the street, their IR lights blinking steadily as they panned the roadway. Using a larger, broader pedestrian as a block he melded into the crowd of people crossing the street. He chose his next civilian cover carefully, waiting just in the mouth of an alleyway for a resident of the building to walk up.

He got lucky when an elderly woman with two large shopping bags approached the door. With a kind smile and an 'Allow me, Miss' the old woman blushed heartily and giggled like a schoolgirl, letting John into the building as he took the burden of her bags from her arms. He used the bags to block his face from being fully viewed by the cameras in the lobby.

A second stroke of luck was that the dear woman lived on the ground floor, so once he deposited her bags in her kitchen, he left her flat with a cheeky grin before darting for the door to the staircase. He smiled inwardly at the lack of cameras in the stairwell; an unsurprising oversight in a time when most people simply took the lift. Slipping out onto the floor he needed, he padded as quietly as possible down the corridor.

It seemed almost deserted. No curious neighbours peeked out of their rooms as he passed, and no one save himself was roaming the hall. The thought passed through his mind that the emptiness of the place was a bit suspicious, but he put that off to deal with after he finished with the situation at hand.

Choosing the right room might have been a challenge for the Provost SWAT team, but John's innate sense of direction did not fail him. It was one of those senses often overlooked when people checked out his chimeric DNA. Being part bird had more advantages than just telescopic vision. He narrowed his choices down to two doors, neither of which showed any sign of occupancy, and both of which boasted the same electronic keypad entry system instead of a lock and key. Listening intently, he checked the wear pattern of the carpet before the door and chose which one was most likely to be vacant before focusing on the lock.

The make and model of the keypad reminded him of the old barracks he had lived in during basic training at home in America. Ten years previously, it had been considered the apex of security mechanisms, until someone had learned the fatal flaw in its design. If the power cut out or went down, the keypad would short out and the occupant of the dwelling was essentially locked inside until a repairman could be found, or an emergency crew cut down the door.

Five years ago, the lock company had replaced all the old models with an updated keypad design with a fascinating fail-safe – if the keypad shorted or lost power for any reason, the door would unlock itself. Nothing short of a tazer could generate the voltage required to overload the circuits, but the darts of one could not hope to penetrate the metal casing of the box, nor could they get into the spaces between the thick rubber keys. The locks were virtually impregnable.

Unless you were a certain Navy Hospital Corpsman with a certain genetic anomaly that effectively turned you into a walking Tesla Coil. John pulled a tube of conductive gel, the sort of thing used in conjunction with a defibrillator, from his pocket and squeezed a generous dollop onto his palm. Slapping that hand against the keypad, he depressed the buttons until he could feel the gel seeping around them. With a pulsing tense of muscle, he flexed the Hunter's organs in his abdominals and arm, delivering a powerful eight-hundred volt shock into the mechanism.

With a soft fizzle and a sharp pop, the lights in the apparatus died and the deadbolt inside the door thunked open. Smiling in satisfaction, John pulled out a handkerchief and wiped away the excess gel from the pad as well as smudging any fingerprints. Stuffing the cloth back in his pocket, he used his sleeve to open the door and, with a last glance around the empty hall, he slipped into the room.

"Where were we?" Hope asked, placing the fake weapon on the table between them. He waved at the bottles again. "Right, go on then and choose. Then we can take them together."

"The odds are fifty-fifty, Mr Hope. It is a game of chance, nothing more." Reclining regally in his chair, Sherlock flourished a hand in the direction of the stairwell. "Feel free to turn yourself over to the Provosts on your way out."

The older man snorted. "You don't even want to know why I did it?"

"I can read the report later."

"I'm sure you already figured out the why anyway." Hope leaned back in his seat and clasped his hands over his pudgy middle. "S'not a hard one to figure out. You've probably seen dozens like me, eh? Child support to pay and all that."

Leaning forward slightly, Sherlock scanned his eyes over the relaxed man before him, taking in the clues of spread over the man sitting before him. Everything Hope was wearing was perhaps three years old or more. There was shaving cream still near one of his ears, dried to a crusty film. He mentioned children, but not a wife, and the tan line of his left hand spoke of a ring that had once occupied the second to last finger, but hadn't been worn there for more a month.

"Of course, those payments," Hope continued to drone on, "they drain the money right out of your wallet. Wouldn't be anything left for when my kids finally made it to university. You know, Mr Holmes, you'd be surprised how many ways there is to make money off a corpse."

"You didn't rob them," Sherlock muttered, almost to himself. "You also didn't take any of their organs; you may be a clever man but a surgeon you are not. You work for a cab company, so the money obviously isn't coming from that. How did you make money from the victims."

Smiling again, Hope leaned forward again, his body language engaging, almost friendly. "Every body I make gets me a healthy sum to give to my kids. Easiest money I ever made."

One of Sherlock's brows lifted. "Someone pays you to murder?"

"I prefer to think of it as someone paying me to out-live people."

As Sherlock's brow lowered, one side of his mouth curved up. Conversationally, he asked, "Yes, and how long have you known you were going to die? Three years or so?"

Surprise overtook Hope's face before his mouth broke into a broad grin. "Oh you are clever! Proper genius!" He tapped a finger against his temple. "Aneurysm. Right here. Could burst at any time. To unpredictable a condition for a better paying job than being a cabbie."

"So you 'out-lived' four people for a large sum of money?"

"And it's the most fun I can have in my condition. Four people killing themselves and the Provosts scramblin' about trying to figure it out? How many people ever get that chance?"

"True," Sherlock conceded. "Speaking of chance," the consultant began again, only to be cut off by Hope slicing a hand through the air.

With his mouth settling in a grim line, Hope hissed, "It's not chance, Mr Holmes! It's chess." He pushed the vials further apart. "You aren't playing the bottles, or the ratios, you're playing me. Did I give you the good bottle, or the bad bottle? Is it a bluff? Is it a double bluff, maybe even a triple bluff?" Nudging the table so the pills rattled in their plastic confines, Hope spread his hands out like an offering. "Come on, Mr Holmes. Don't you want to know if you could have beaten me?"

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