The Burning Question - The Baker Street Series Book 3


Hot on the heels of solving a missing person's case, Sherlock finds Lestrade at his door. Downtown London is burning and no one knows exactly why. Who better to answer the burning question?

Mystery / Adventure
Age Rating:

Chapter 1

John Watson woke up to Sherlock Holmes' tall silhouette moving around his room.

It was 3 AM.

John wriggled out of the knot of sheets that often formed around him when he dreamt of the war, and managed to complain, "What the devil are you doing, Sherlock?" His reward was getting to see Sherlock's lithe form lift about a half a foot off the ground, turn in midair, and come down with a crack against the dresser. Then, like a cat, he scampered out of the room at full tilt.

So funny! So damn funny! And John was too tired to even laugh. Life was unfair. "No," John heaved himself out of bed and stumbled after his flatmate. "Run away is not the correct answer to What the devil are you doing?"

"I needed batteries. Go to bed."

John stopped in the front room and looked up at the ceiling. Presumably, his creator lived up there, give or take a few floors. "God, do I ask?" Last time he'd come for batteries, it had had to do with passing a current through a human eyeball.

This time, it appeared to be refills for a nice normal light. He stuffed the batteries in, and then tucked the thing into a small kit that John had started to construct for those times when they had to hunt around in dark alleyways and-

"You smell like outside," John realized. "Why do you smell like outside at 4AM?"

"Well, first, congratulations – well done. And second, Occam's Law." Sherlock said almost to himself. He tucked the kit under the kitchen sink and leaned against the counter, winded.

John rubbed his face, "Why were you outside again?" Had he said?

"You should go to bed." Sherlock said gravely.

"I should go to bed."


John turned in place and made his way back to the warm, welcoming, fresh linen embrace of his bed. He pulled the coverlets out right, crawled in, flipped his pillow, and pushed his face into the coolest, most welcoming slumber.

Then his phone rang. At first, John thought he'd just put his head down. Then he'd cracked his eyes to see it was 5:00AM. That was more like it! He paddled out of the, thankfully, smooth sheets, and caught up his phone.


"Where's Sherlock?"

"Lestrade, it's 5AM. Where do you think he is?"

There was a moment's silence. "Okay, I'm on my way over and he's not answering the phone."

"Let me go get him up then." John hung up the phone without waiting for an answer. He trudged into the shower just to rouse himself, stood for ten minutes, and then emerged relatively human. As soon as he had dressed, he went for Sherlock.

Holmes was standing in the front room with a cup of coffee in one hand, and a sickeningly large stack of pancakes in the other. The Metro was tucked under one wing.


Sherlock still wasn't in the habit of using niceties like 'good morning', 'please', or 'thanks' and it had been decades since anything like that had shown up on his report card. Even back then, he'd have gotten a cluster of epic fails. So Sherlock wandered to the coffee table and set down his pancakes. They were blueberry, with molasses over the top to give the stack more kick. John had no doubt he could put every crumb of it away.

John went in the kitchen and poured himself coffee. As he did so, he stole a glance back at the tall, slender figure hunched over the table, reading and eating, furiously. His charcoal suit was flawless, inside it a shirt in lilac. He looked elegant, except for shovelling food in his face as quickly as he could manage. John sipped coffee, looked at the three discarded instant pancake boxes strewn across the counter, and shook his head. He might be a genius, and a snappy dresser, but a two-year-old spaniel could pick up after itself better. John tossed the empty boxes away and went to sit on the couch opposite Holmes.

"How are you?"

"Stop talking."

"Pardon me?" John blinked.

Sherlock looked up from his paper. "I need silence." He went back to it doggedly.

John frowned, and took three of the pancakes off the pile before he headed back into the kitchen. Sherlock watched this disapprovingly, but, ultimately, to say anything about it was to invite conversation, so he was stuck. John laid the pancakes on a paper plate and fished out the syrup and some fresh raspberry jam.

Then something twigged. "What were you doing so late last night?"

"John!" Sherlock said hotly.


The silence endured a long time, and John had made it through all but one pancake before it dawned on him that Sherlock hadn't moved since he'd asked the question. He sat up and gave Sherlock's rigid spine his full attention.

"John, I… I found the McAllister baby last night."

"Good Lord, that child has been missing for months! And there's a reward. Did Sir Ian break down and hire you?" John fairly spit out his forkful of pancakes. He picked up his plate and coffee and hurried into the front room to sit on the couch. "The reward is something like 100,000£."

Sherlock held his gaze and curled his fingers together before him in air. "The McAllister family doesn't know it was me."

"What? Why!" John exclaimed excitedly. "I mean, I didn't even realize you were following the case! Where did you find her?"

"In an overgrown graveyard in a damaged crypt."

John's excitement died away to nothing in a heartbeat.

Stiffly, Sherlock looked down at his unfinished pancakes. "Is it disingenuous to demand a reward, John? I thought that would be your opinion, given the outcome."

"I'm sorry…. I mean, why? Why do you say that?"

"Would have found her within the hour if I'd had time that same day," Sherlock stretched and turned the page of the newspaper before him. "Although, I believe she would still have been dead."

John got up, clapped a hand on his friend's shoulder, and crossed to the kitchen to get the pot of coffee and sugar dish for refills. "Wait. Slow down. It's still good detecting, Sherlock."

"Of course," Sherlock's brows drew down. "Was that ever in doubt?"

"So what happened to her?" John's lips compressed as he sat down. He topped them both off with coffee. "How'd you figure it out?"

"Well, I hadn't really been involved with the McAllister kidnapping. As you know, I was working other cases at the time. Last night, a special aired. I knew where she was about halfway through. In some of the old footage from A McAllister Christmas, I noted the elderly grandmother had early signs of dementia. I doubt she's aware that she did anything wrong by putting the child in one of the old family plots." He sipped his coffee and continued. "I expect that the girl simply stopped breathing in her bed, or one of those things. Perhaps she was shaken – though I could find no outward sign on the body. It's for forensics now. Took me half the night to find old McAllister graveyard in the woods, though."

"The body's with forensics then?"

"Anonymous tip to Scotland Yard." Sherlock said. "They'll be getting her out this morning. Someone else will determine the cause of death. It's out of my hands."

"It was good work." And all accomplished while John had been sleeping peacefully in his bed. John polished off the last of his pancake. Sherlock looked in his cup. It was already half-drained. "Hang on. I'll brew more coffee."

Sherlock rubbed his face. "Ah, sometimes I hate being right."

John froze half-way across the room. "Is this bothering your conscience?"

"My what?" Sherlock's nose wrinkled a little.

"Your…. Is this bothering you?"

"Oh. It certainly is. I just couldn't get to sleep. I had to prove to myself I wasn't seeing things. And look at me now? I'm overtired. I won't be able to sleep for days thanks to this." He sighed and swallowed the last of his coffee.

Lestrade knocked at the doorframe to their flat, the living room door being open. He didn't wait for an invitation. "Sherlock. The McAllister-"

"Not finished my paper," Sherlock said immediately.

"Not finished his-" Lestrade looked across at John and threw his hands up. "What is this?"

"Normal," John told him. "You really don't want to interrupt him before he gets through the Metro. Want coffee?"

"Thought he'd read it online." Lestrade stood over Sherlock's stooped figure on the floor beside the coffee table, and marvelled how efficiently such a tall, slim frame could compact.

"Morning ritual." John said. "Coffee?"

"No, thanks. And, see, the McAllister family thinks the murderer gave up their daughter's location. We have a couple of people who look good for it in the nick and I was hoping to have Sherlock give them a looking at. You know, did they crack and call it in last night. I know a special aired. I thought, maybe, the guilt… well, basically, we need a yes or no in a hurry."

"No." Sherlock said with a nod.

"What?" Lestrade asked.

Sherlock closed the newspaper and folded it. "No. They didn't crack and call in the location of her body last night."

Lestrade's eyes widened, "How do you know?"

"Because," Sherlock sighed heavily, waited a moment, and then shut his eyes. The edges of his bow lips pulled to dimple his cheeks, "Because I saw the special last night, Lestrade."

Silence. Lestrade circled around him to look into Sherlock's face. "You. Are. Kidding me."

"No." Sherlock scooped two sugars into his cup before John arrived with the coffee pot and refilled him. "I don't think she was murdered. I think she died. Her elderly grandmother snapped and took the body into the woods. The ancestral family plot is hard to find, in disorder, and clotted with trees and brush now, but it would have been a magnificent playground when she was a young girl. She, alone, would know her way in the dark. She had shown signs of dementia. This was the point of no return for her. She interred the baby and her sanity went with. That was almost six months ago. You'll find she's in a much more advanced state now."

"You solved it off an hour-long television program?"

"I solved it off 30 seconds of clips shown during half an hour of a television program," Sherlock sipped his coffee and flicked his curls. "Now go tell the McAllister's it was called in by some soul wandering about the gorse that happened upon their old graveyard."

"There's a reward you're due."

"Am I being too subtle, Lestrade?" Sherlock flowed up to his feet in one slinky cat motion. "Do not tell the McAllister's that I did this."

Lestrade shook his head and went out onto the stairs. "And you're sure?"

"Are you mad? I was there," Sherlock said from the doorway.

"You're sure these guys didn't kill the baby?" He reached the bottom of the landing and turned in place to lean on the newel post and look up at Holmes.

"That's why you have a forensics team." Sherlock said tartly right before closing the door. He heaved a sigh, squared himself, and then deflated. "No-no-no. Not working. I need sleep."

"After three coffees?" John couldn't believe it possible of anyone. Holmes whipped past John on the way to his bedroom, already out of his jacket. The shirt came off before Sherlock reached the door. In less than a minute, Sherlock was draped in cotton sheets, face-down in his plethora of pillows with his long arms out as if to embrace them, solidly asleep by the time John kicked his discarded clothes into his room after him. God knew Sherlock owed those fresh bed-linens to John. And God only knew how he could be comfortable sleeping in the nude like that.

John checked his watch, remembered his work schedule at the clinic, and wandered off to brush his teeth. He loved the life of a Consulting Detective.

It wasn't his life.

John spent a relatively peaceful day at work. The clinic, in comparison to working with Sherlock Holmes, was very orderly, peaceful, and quiet. He had a mere four hour shift that morning, and during that time he saw several patients:

one chest infection

one dog bite

one case of a latex allergy

one poison oak

two skinned knees

and an unfortunate accident with a hammer

this was on top of the regular patients who simply came in for their general checkups. There was nothing terribly exciting about his work day, but then that was also the charm of working at the clinic. John was able to spend a lot of time with Sarah; the staff was polite and friendly; and he was starting to fit in well. He was very effective, and wondered if there was a time coming, very soon, when he would be offered a full-time schedule. John didn't know how to feel about that, seeing as it would definitely interfere in his activities with Sherlock. At some point he had to acknowledge that Sherlock's life was very different than his own, but he wasn't sure he was ready to do that quite yet. In fact he wasn't sure he was ready to do that at all.

It was with some reluctance that he faced the idea of not being the Consulting Detective's assistant. It certainly was an uncomfortable topic for him, even though at first the role had been unwelcome, and he had felt he was a poor fit. By now, of course, Sherlock's world preoccupied most of John's waking thoughts. Secretly, returning to it was often all he wanted…. Living this way was almost like having an alter ego, or like the real world was simply a distraction. It was even more likely that the real world was Sherlock's world, and the rest of John's life was a kind of illusion. But he didn't have the skills Sherlock did. He simply didn't. And though it was terribly embarrassing to admit, it was almost as though he couldn't get his fill of Sherlock Holmes sparking mind, almost as though they had been on an extended date: one that had lasted for months and was particularly intense. There was no attraction, or anything like that, just the John lacked the vocabulary, and the ideological groundwork, with which to compare his fascination to anything else. To say the least, he could think of no better friend to have.

Still, given that mortifying self-admission he could see why Sarah persisted in her belief that something was 'going on' between them that John couldn't admit to. Even now, John was standing in his white doctor's coat in the hallway of the clinic wondering how Sherlock Holmes was faring. It had to be the most unproductive thought he'd ever had at work, and the most repetitive. John began to wonder if he envied Sherlock his brilliance.

At the end of the day John was quite eager to head home. This was mostly because Sarah had to work the late shift, and he wasn't going to be able to keep her company the way they normally did on nights where they both closed the clinic. He decided to cab directly over to Scotland Yard to check with Lestrade on the McAllister case.

He was very surprised by the bustle inside of Scotland Yard's Homicide and Serious Crimes branch. There seemed to be almost too much going on.

Lestrade spotted him almost immediately and hurried his direction. "This is refreshing. I don't even have to call. He with you?"

There was no doubt who he was.

John's brows quirked, "I thought he'd be here. I'm just coming from the clinic."

Lestrade bustled past Donovan at her desk, and she rose immediately, and hung up her phone. There was definitely something going on, and it didn't look good by the amount of people mobilized to handle it. John did an about-face and immediately headed back to the elevators. Lestrade caught up to him just as he pressed the down arrow.

"So what's going on?" John asked.

"We had a message that there will be a fire." Lestrade said.

"You had word that there would be a fire? It doesn't make much sense." John stepped into the elevator and pressed the button for the ground floor. "Who goes around sending messages like that?"

"Clearly crazy people," Lestrade added onto the end of that thought. "We've had a letter, or, sorry, an e-mail to let us know to expect fire in the downtown, something devastating."

"Well, surely it can't be credible." John exclaimed. "There's no way they'd tell you about it ahead of time at least not if they wanted to do any real damage." He busily texted Sherlock. The faster Holmes could get here and onto this case the better for everyone.

"Seems to be credible, we've already got units reporting fingers of smoke over the city. I wouldn't so much say they told us ahead of time, as in the nick of time. Something's already burning. Could be that the arsonist is still on scene to witness it as well."

"Arsonists, Detective Inspector Lestrade," Donovan said as she pushed past him on the way through the lobby. She looked back over her shoulder and added, "It looks like more than one place in the downtown is on fire right now; we have multiple units reporting. We've got firebugs."

John was stupefied, "Why on earth would someone decide to burn up the city? What's the point? Seems rather random, doesn't it?"

Donovan detoured away from them, and headed down the hallway to the room in which she usually gave press conferences. In general there was a scramble towards police units, everyone seeming to need to be somewhere at once.

John decided to ride with Lestrade, and they'd already made a decision to swing by 221B Baker Street to pick up Sherlock before they went on to any of the crime scenes. As yet there was no text from the genius, which was a bit unsettling to John given the current state of the city.

As they arrived, John led the way up the stairs to their flat, only to find the door hanging open to the front room. Inside, Sir Ian McAllister stood large and imposing over where Sherlock sat in his favorite chair. John and Lestrade seem to of walked into the middle of a disagreement. John had no idea how Sir Ian had come to be there. There seemed to be no way that he could connect the actions that had been taken last night to Sherlock Holmes, and yet here he was seemingly aware who had recovered his missing daughter. Sherlock's face was unreadable, apart from the sudden surprise of their arrival. This at least explained why he hadn't answered his text.

John simply stood in the doorway and looked between them, and then quickly added, "Parts of London are on fire. Lestrade said he's had a letter, or, rather, an e-mail, warning him the fires were coming. Sorry for this Sir Ian, but Sherlock is needed right now. I hope you can understand."

Sir Ian McAllister stepped back and looked at John. The celebrated actor of stage and screen was even more intimidating in person than in his Oscar-winning roles as Stalin, Hamlet, and Caesar. His glowering was somewhat impressive. However he quite reasonably said, "You must be Dr. John Watson, of whom I've heard so much. And, of course, if there's some calamity in London it needs to be seen to right away. But what's this you say of fire?" No matter how informal the setting, his voice carried as though on stage – a deep baritone, hovering above bass.

Sherlock laid aside his violin and got to his feet. "You shouldn't concern yourself with this. You have enough on your plate right now, or isn't that what they say at times like these?" He made a vague gesturing with his hand in air.

Sir Ian folded his hands together, "Sherlock I must insist."

"And I told you I must refuse. There's no need. You shouldn't even be here."

"Your family will understand my coming to you, my presence here. They should've volunteered your assistance, I think," Sir Ian told the genius. "I understand that Adora was already dead, poor child, before she left the house, I believe you when you tell me it was happenstance – given her frail health. But it's been torture waiting for news. You might've ended our torment." But this didn't seem to change Sherlock's demeanor any, in fact he looked, if possible, more uncomfortable than before.

Very quietly Sherlock remarked, "The idea they will understand is quite unlikely. We'll continue this conversation at another time, Sir Ian, until then, that will be all."

The man left the flat as docilely as a lamb under the guidance of a sheepdog. It wasn't at all what John expected from so great a personality. Sherlock wasted no time getting into his coat. It wasn't his longer thicker coat – the one that Watson most readily associated with Sherlock – but a long, lighter coat in charcoal, which was suited to the warmer weather. It was clearly Designer. The coat to which Watson had become accustomed, happened to be quite thick, and made Sherlock's slender frame look more substantial than it actually was. So the overall effect of this change was still something Watson was getting used to. It certainly gave Lestrade pause, but then there was too much going on for him to pay much attention. That was never something that Sherlock could say.

"What's on fire?" He asked. Sherlock had the decency not to look excited.

"Several buildings in the downtown have been set ablaze. They're over a wide area, and there seems to be no pattern." Lestrade said. He led the way down the stairs and out the door to where his police car waited. Sherlock didn't look very happy with this development, but then he never liked to ride in police cars. Only the urgency of the situation convinced him to get inside, and even then he would only ride in the front.

"Anyone claiming it?" Sherlock asked.


"Multiple claims?"

Lestrade nodded, "There's only one we find credible for all of them. The one that came in slightly before the fires caught the eye of the city."

Sherlock tapped on his cell phone as they drove, seeming barely to take note of the street until Lestrade was about to take a turn. "Next left, not this one."


"Lights are down. Take the roundabout." Sherlock nodded at his cell phone. "Millbank. Vauxhall. Rochester. Horseferry. Black Prince. Old Paradise. Lambeth High. Gibson Road. Lupus. Sutherland. St. George's Drive. Clarendon. Twelve fires. Such clever little boxes."

"What?" Lestrade got them into the roundabout.

"They draw little boxes around areas of the city," Sherlock nodded and tucked his phone in his pocket. "Why else so many random fires? They serve no purpose until connected."

The traffic ahead slowed to a crawl. Above them, on the right, a finger of light reached into the twilight, spewing embers up at the clouds. Sherlock pulled the door handle and got out. John gave a muffled cry and hurried after the man. Though he knew that Lestrade was shouting at him, he couldn't hear a thing over the scream of sirens. He could, however, imagine the contents.

"What's the plan here?" he bumped against Sherlock's side. "You can't go running in."

"The plan is to search the crowd." People sped away. They creased the crowd, the only two heading in from the outside. They rounded the corner on a fire so fierce that it blew Sherlock's coat out like wings. He moved in closer to watch the people huddled around the fire trucks. His eyes combed them… and came up empty. "Not here."

They were so close to the edge of the flames that John huffed against the smoke and heat and embers breathed around them. A tremendous crack sounded. Flames fell like arrowheads. John scurried in one direction, and Homes in the other. Cinders sprayed and rained on them. John sucked in a breath to shout for Holmes, only to have a hurtling shape catch him around the ribs and drag him along. It was Sherlock, with his long coat flagging out behind him. It looked undamaged.

They raced out of the range of falling objects and passed Lestrade on their way around the corner. John laboured to keep up with Holmes, who ran for blocks to the next fire. They checked all four, and John was seriously knackered before they raced back to the original fire and Lestrade, now with many of his team around him. Sherlock wasn't even winded.

He arrived with force, grabbed Lestrade around the shoulders, and spun him in place. "Need a helicopter, do you have one?"

"Sherlock, I can't just-"

He took out his phone and placed a call – very unusual for Sherlock. "I need a helicopter." He turned away and started striding down the road. Sherlock paced on the street and ruffled embers out of his hair.

"Has he lost his mind?" Donovan asked. "Running around the streets like a mad man?"

"Don't you see?" Sherlock shouted at them. "They're pushing traffic around the city, it's like parting the Red Sea. There is a fox in one of these boxes and whoever set these fires is waiting for a glimpse of it." Sherlock pointed up at the traffic cameras. "Clever. Evil. Clever. But who are they looking for? Who do they want?" He stopped moving and shut his eyes. His lips compressed and he looked at the rooftops around him.

Then he was off again. John straightened with a gasp. "He's going on the roofs."

"He's what?" Donovan almost yelled this. "Is he mental?"

John patted some soot out of his suit and followed in Holmes' wake. Lestrade came along behind him. "How does he know there's some kind of method behind this?"

"Look at all this effort," Sherlock took them down an alley, always looking up. "Look at all the fires here. Imagine the manpower this message took? The planning and care? It would have been expensive. This isn't just random. This is a war." He leapt up at the fire escape, caught it, pulled it down, and shot up the side of the building with incredible speed.

"Sherlock! Hello!" John shouted from below. He looked sharply across at the snicker from Sergeant Sally Donovan.

There was nothing to do but wait.

"You don't think he got a helicopter though, right?" Lestrade cocked his head. "I mean, where would he be able to get a helicopter from?"

John actually laughed. "Do you have any idea how many people owe him favours? Do you think he only solves cases when people can pay?"

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