Warren made a little moue of disbelief.
There were mutters. Some soft swears. None of the City police looked very pleased to find out it was them he was addressing. Dark looks swept over him and Lestrade, and more than one expression of disgust and antagonism sprang up.
Whoa. Lestrade winced and glanced at the SIO. "We should remove them, quickly." as in, before Sherlock got a head of steam. He could be a tyrant in a tantrum – a real little soldier's boots, or however that went.
The SIO gave herself a shake. "You mean…. Remove my investigators? Why's that?" She glanced around her in the sunny room as if the reason was something in there that she could lay her hands on. And it was – it was Sherlock – but she'd best not touch him. Lestrade had done that a couple times before and Sherlock Holmes did not like human contact.
"Sherlock doesn't play well – doesn't do anything well with others, and… and his bite is much worse than his bark." Lestrade stepped aside and allowed Charlotte to command her men to wait outside on the nightmare staircase – soon to be dubbed 'hellcase'. They were grousing loudly, and Lestrade couldn't blame them. Sherlock soon stood alone in the loft, both the commanding officers far back by the door for the moment. The door Lestrade used to shut the other police out.
"Now keep quiet as you can," Lestrade muttered. "Keep behind him so he don't see us. Otherwise, we'll put him off."
She looked fascinated, and more than a little perplexed. "Is this the 'get the hell out of his way' part, then?"
It made Lestrade chuckle. "More or less."
Less than six feet in front of them, the rainclouds cleared. Sherlock Holmes could now see the spartan loft as the person living here saw it, every day. And that person was….
Female. Early twenties.
Ah relief! He could hear himself think again.
Artwork, both digital and physical media.
The sun had made the room hot. Sherlock took off both his coat and his jacket, dropped them on the floor, and stepped further into the room. He smoothed his elegantly pinstriped shirt. Walls, ceilings, the fridge, every surface was a riot of colour. All around him, there were creamy, rich pastels, excellently blurred watercolours, and the light-captivating luminance of gouache paint; so much to see, in fact, that it had nearly deafened his senses walking in here, in spite of how slowly he'd gone. This was like being at his uncle's house in France, just… the first few hours, he couldn't contain his thoughts. They'd overflow, even when he closed his eyes. He reached a hand back and cupped the back of his head, trying to hold it all in.
That was this room full of artwork.
For a while, he shut his eyes. It let him catalog what he'd already seen.
Solid, marketable artist, in the style of-
Incomplete thought meant there was something he'd missed; something that bent his neck at an uncomfortable angle and drew his eyes upward.
He scanned the room at his eye level of better than six feet.
Where she bothers, the same signature. Same artist.
Above him there was a vivid, boiling, scarcely controllable war of canvases. Around him, technically excellent paintings of Big Ben, children, London, dockyards, clever vector art, and the odd fractal piece. Sherlock adored fractal math.
She's mastered many styles.
No photos of her. Not vain.
No photos of friends and family.
Sherlock sat on the floor and leaned back. He sank down until his curls hit the carpet. She must have done this. It was the only comfortable way to see what she'd done up there. The ceiling had wires extending down. Her abstracts hung high above in contorted layers – some of them with canvas cut and peeled open so that others could push through. It was like watching World War I footage of fighters. That wasn't just storage up there. Holmes' sat up and did a slow head-turn at his eyelevel.
Abstracts on ceiling.
Hung higher than the light fixtures.
Abstracts invisible at night.
Pass detection unless looking up during the day.
Socially acceptable, approachable pieces at eyelevel.
Unable to properly bury her past.
He rolled up to his feet and followed the coppery tang of blood in the air. Sherlock tucked his hands in his pants pockets and walked through the spare front room. It was populated by art supplies, a small flat-screen television on a makeshift stand, and three easels whose canvases were protected by opaque dust-covers. And a futon. Most of the money went into supplies. But that didn't draw Sherlock's attention. He walked down three steps beside the kitchenette into a small dining room area… and stopped.
Estimate… four and a half or five pints of blood.
It was blackening in the sunlight. "Do we have samples of this?"
"Oh man," Lestrade said from the top of the steps.
Charlotte topped the stairs that headed down out of the kitchen. "We do," she said grimly.
Sherlock's eyes followed the spray patterns in the blood. There was so much of it. He rarely saw so much at a scene. The blood painted everything. He looked up and found splatters on the dark and violent abstracts overhead. It streaked the walls and blinds, coated the Japanese style table and cushions, and stained the wood floor up to a large circular void.
Area rug. Removed.
Sherlock estimated the volume of the void would equal about a pint. Though the full volume soaked in the rug wasn't possible to estimate. He didn't know what kind it was, or the material. Other rugs in the house might help him get a figure.
Steps up to lofts – no blood on the wood treads.
They used the lift.
Average human woman: 8 to 11 pints of blood, depending on size.
Sherlock moved on into the bedroom. He paused to glance into the loo. It was crowded with so many paintings that the door couldn't be closed. One would have to shut the bedroom door. Her room was much the same – storage, but these paintings were wrapped in brown paper and had tags and addresses on them to indicate they'd been sold, some for a couple of hundred pounds, one for 500£. Sherlock sorted through them, nothing had gone for under 40 quid.
Her bed was a single mattress, neatly made, set on a low, makeshift frame made of wood. He got down and found that the area underneath was packed with art books and supplies. Nothing off. No drugs. Nothing she was hiding. Just the abstract paintings, and she's done a very bad job of that.
24 paintings, in the bedroom, sold.
4 in the laundry. Sold.
2 in the lav. Sold.
Beginning to be successful.
Tired of hiding.
Sherlock very possibly found and checked every socket in the house, and every corner, but her mobile phone was as missing as this artist was. And yet her purse was on her night-table.
He smiled tightly as he prowled the loft.
He should give her a call. He thought this as he stood out on her balcony, the wind fingering his curling hair. The balcony door had already been open, but he frowned at the layout. No way. No way could someone get onto this balcony without breaking their neck. The distances were too great unless you felt like repelling. To get a body off, you'd have to pitch it over the side and have it drop four storeys, or lower it down and hope no one saw.
Three people in the building across the way watched him right now. He gave a crooked smile and went back inside.
"She let her killer in… or her killer was already in." He told the SIO and Lestrade as he came from the bedroom. It was getting easier to move around in the stimulation of the rooms now, at least.
Lestrade looked up from where he held up one of the covers on her latest paintings. "Sherlock."
SIO Warren, standing behind Lestrade's shoulder stared wordlessly in Holmes' direction.
"Do we know anything about her? Boyfriends? Colleagues? I should say, do you know. She has acquaintances, but doesn't get close. It's something she wants to change since she's bought a thank you card this week. Bill's still in the bag. Pink card. It's for another woman. She's single, trying to date, but that's a recent thing. There's someone she set for, can see that in the recent purchases: dark, smoky eye shadow, plum gloss – dark colours for being out at night – and she's on the pill for a month and a half according to the prescription in her purse. He's someone her friend-" Sherlock stopped. Something was wrong with the police. He skirted the mess of blood and walked into the front room toward them.
Now they both looked from the canvas straight at him.
"Better come here, Sherlock." Lestrade grumbled. He dropped the dust cover over the back of the painting and Sherlock turned to take it in. When he froze, he did so completely, as wild horses freeze, not even breathing. Inside his head, the complex alchemy reset and left him utterly blank. Like a refusal, his mind wouldn't clear this barrier before him. Blank. Blank.
A spark lit.
John and Sarah.
He was in the reference photo on the corner of the canvas – drinking dark wine, half-turned in John's direction, deeply amused and smiling. John opened his arms, talking. Sarah laughed. Sherlock looked very happy. He hadn't very often seen himself look happy. He stared.
The acrylic of the reference photo – itself printed off a laser jet – was almost finished.
The colours in the painting beggared those in the printed photo.
Sherlock sucked a breath. Nothing. Why did he feel nothing?
And he couldn't focus. He was flat. In this state, he did a slow turn in the room. Everything slid off. Nothing penetrated. It was creepy. Until his head sparked. In starts, his eyes found many things, then very many things, and then the loft fell on him like a tsunami – everything started coming in faster and faster and assaulting his brain like mammoth hail. It was too much material. He shut his eyes, but the feed kept coming. It blazed up out of his memory, shuffling and rearranging at amazing speed, combining with older memories, searing his nerve endings – faster and more.
He started feeling queasy, remembered touching his forehead, and then he hit blackness.
John clapped his cheek. Holmes was still on his feet, but something was happening to him. His breathing was shallow; he flicked his head to clear it, but it wouldn't clear. His head was a mess.
Lestrade had hold of Sherlock by the elbow and the shoulder. "What's happening to him?"
"I just got in the door. How would I know? Come on, Sherlock." John, once assured that Holmes would remain on his feet, shifted his hands to take Holmes' pulse. Fast, but steady. "Just nod if you can hear me, okay?"
Sherlock nodded slowly.
"Can't talk?" John asked.
Another nod. John looked right and saw the painting. His eyes widened. "That's us at Pensaci Bene! At supper… at Alda's… what's that doing at a crime scene?" He diverted away to Sherlock, since Holmes had just pulled away to settle on the lone futon against the brick wall. "What happened? What just happened to you?"
"Don't know," he winced and checked his watch, "only been on the scene 35 minutes. Nothing unusual." He put his head down and held it in his hands.
SIO Warren jerked a thumb in the direction of the picture, "What's the meaning of this, Mr. Holmes?"
John glanced her way, "It's just Sherlock." He caught himself and extended a hand. "I'm sorry. It's reflex. I'm John Watson. I work with-" John started to point at his flatmate.
"I know. And so I figured," the red haired woman shook his hand. "Senior Investigating Officer Warren. I called Mr. – I called Sherlock Holmes in on this scene. I certainly didn't expect this." She said as she took her hand away and tucked it in her pocket. She looked at the painting. "Do you know this woman?"
"No," John shook his head. "I… I don't have an explanation for-"
"Yes," Sherlock droned. "Yes we know her. Look where we are, John. Think. There's only one person we've encountered at Alda's capable of all this."
John turned and looked around him, only, Sherlock noticed, at eye-level. His face went through a sudden paroxysm. "Oh my God. Sofia. What happened? Is she okay?"
"If Sofia somehow managed to bleed out 5 or 6 pints and survive, she'd still be in critical trouble." Sherlock raised his head and looked around him experimentally. Good. Better. He was online and it was as if he'd come into a new room. His knowledge of it was now somehow multidimensional, alive with the person John and Sarah had set him up with in the late spring. The girl who had spoken to him so hopefully, tipped her head just so, and whose powder had betrayed faded tracks of tears, was now an inescapable feature of these rooms. His head throbbed, but it worked.
Sherlock had known she was in trouble. But he'd been distracted with other cases, and also uncomfortable with her interest in him.
"She's a friend and a patient of Sarah's," John told Lestrade numbly. "She… she's curious about Sherlock, and so we had her meet us up at that restaurant. It didn't go well. Sherlock, you know-" John glanced up at Lestrade, who, from the look on his face, could only imagine. "Well, he saw something about her, that she'd been crying before she'd come to join us… and she ran out. That was the last time we saw her."
Sherlock said. "Sarah saw her once more, afterward. Sofia gave a story about a death in the family. But there is no family. Look at this place. There's no one at all." He walked over and started going through the mail on her phone table, "Sofia Rothingham. Woman of many faces." He looked directly up above his head at a terrifically dark and brutal abstract.
John's eyes widened. "Oh-my-God," he breathed and turned in place. "Sherlock, after the case, The Photography Club case… she'd put a note under the kitchen door and I stuffed it in my pocket. But it warmed up soon after and I switched out coats. She left a note for you and I…."
Holmes dropped the mail he held onto the table again. "She left me a note, and you took it? Why?" He crossed the room in just a few long steps. "Why would you do that? I told you she was in trouble; I tried to find out what she was afraid of; I later sent Sarah to inquire with her. Sarah is someone that Sofia trusts – given my work, why would you keep back a letter Sofia came all the way across town to deliver to me?"
John shook his head, "It was right after the Club case, Sherlock – you'd been through hell. You needed rest and food, and that's without thinking of the emotional toll. You were fragile. I was looking out for you! You couldn't take up on a new case right then, so I thought-"
Sherlock's teeth flashed and he snapped, "You aren't my keeper, you are my assistant. Nor do you remotely approximate someone who can make decisions for me."
"You'd been exposed to heaps of cocaine again, Sherlock. You took weeks to get right." John rubbed the side of his face and broke off. He was suddenly fixed on the realization Sarah didn't know about her friend's murder yet, and that it was his thoughtless action that had condemned this girl. He couldn't do anything about it. It was too late to prevent it. He heard himself murmur, "Oh my God."
Holmes paced and growled, "Well it wasn't going to kill me. More than I can say for Sofia."
John put his hand up across his mouth and looked around him. It took only a few more steps for him to see the bloody massacre of the sunken dining room. He stood shaking. Then he turned on his heel and headed for the door. He had to get clear of here.
"Where are you going?" Sherlock's deep voice called out behind him. He could hear Sherlock start in his direction, "John." But John slammed the door on the tail end of that and headed down through the knot of police on the staircase. It was like there wasn't enough air.
By the time John reached the sidewalk he was seeing black dots in front of his eyes. He caught a cab almost immediately and shoveled money at the driver. He wanted to lose himself in the city.
An hour and a half later, Sherlock Holmes sat in Scotland Yard. He was in a glass box. It was the spare office. It had no blinds. The air exchanger blew cold air down the back of his long neck, which he hated. He sat in a straight-backed chair at a black Formica-topped desk. Apart from the light overhead, there was nothing else in the room. This box, with its steel-framed glass door, was informally known as the office of the Consulting Detective. Something which he could never admit to was that, during his first few nights spent utterly engrossed in Cold Cases in this room, members of the Late Turn had rigged the door, turned out the lights on the floor, and left him.
It crossed his mind again, now that he was alone.
It had been a simple enough thing to go to 221B Baker Street and find Watson's coat buried on the tree behind the door. Sherlock had fished the note out and cabbed back to the Yard. He… had half expected to find John in the apartment, in fact. But… no John.
Now he opened the envelope.
He didn't feel anything for Sofia.
Well… curiosity. He had, of course, noticed that she was beautiful, with massive curls of honey hair, and a smile that lit the general rosiness of her face and eyes. He had, of course, noticed that she didn't seem to find him distasteful. And she was an artist. Artists were very creative. He was also very creative. Already, something in common. John had been the first person in his life to point out there were similarities between Sherlock and certain of the murder victims he admired – Jennifer Wilson; Melody Doyle. What did it mean? Sherlock laid the letter and white envelope on the desk before him.
Hope was for the feeble. It was for the fond.
Sherlock snuffled his fingertips.
He remembered the waft of perfume as Sofia had settled into the booth beside him. The smell of her had made his stomach tighten. His senses had registered a threat and put him on guard. Sherlock knew he was, by nature, forward, emphatic, and aggressive, and, of course, he was male. His nature was not somehow magically different with women, except he couldn't allow himself…. Ah, but he could smell that lightheaded perfume now.
What was it? He'd smelled it before.
God – Anthea wore it too. It had the power to make him guttural.
His brain supplied.
Thank you. Sherlock opened the letter before him. It was soft pink card stock, locally sourced by the watermark, and very artistic, as was the pretty handwriting inside, which was almost like calligraphy. He could smell the dot of perfume that oiled the bottom of the page, below the scrawl of her signature – Sofia.
When he'd been little, he would make deals with himself, like this: If I don't see this, then you will not be dead. The same fascinating self-delusion kicked inside him now like the moribund leg of a bug. Which girl was it for? Didn't matter. He could not kill, or spare, Sofia by reading a letter. But he might be able to find her. So Sherlock shut his eyes and put aside soft pink, perfume, and women. Those were not things he could make work. Labyrinths, lies, murder, and the machinery of decay, those things were his province. Those things, he could work.
And you are dear. I promise.
Meeting you, I couldn't catch my breath.
You are so very, very handsome.
So penetrating and bright.
But forget my foolishness. Let me start over.
I shouldn't have run out as I did. Please don't be cross. Don't think I'm crazy. It has been a hard two years for me.
The fingers of Sherlock's right hand flexed over the table and his gaze lingered on 'two years'.
You were right. I stood outside of the restaurant and had my little few tears. I thought it was sillytoo, but agreeing to see you was such a big leap for me, Sherlock. The man Sarah described to me was just too strange, too creative for me to pass up. I had to see. But that meant I had begun to live again.
"So you hadn't been living for two years," Sherlock took that to mean. "Why?" Her abstract paintings flickered through his visual memory with such force he had to shake his head to clear it.
So I cried.
Now Sherlock sat back and shut his eyes. He wished he could say he had no point of comparison for those last two lines, but – embarrassingly enough – he did. However, that was a good twenty years in the past for him now.
I am hoping – I am sorry for doing this Sherlock, and it's not why I wanted to see you – but I am hoping you can help me. No. Help me. Help me, please. I want to be safe. I know that you, with your intellect, you can make it so, you can protect me. I am afraid to tell you more in a letter, but I will tell you this, and I know it will be enough: 2009; fire; Ark-Co.
And… this is so puerile. So silly. But please don't dislike me for running off on you.
I would like to see you again.
Such dark, lovely cologne.
And such attractive eyes.
He shivered, but it wasn't something that would have been perceptible to someone standing outside this room. Okay…. Had he ever gotten a letter like this one? It wasn't a love letter. That sense was also superfluous. But something about it felt highly private. He didn't want anyone else to see it.
Like Lestrade right now. He was outside the box staring in at his captive, as so many of them did when they stuffed him in here for a time-out. Coming into this room, he felt so out-of-control. Would they take away his letter? He didn't want this falling into the wrong hands. It had the immediate power to hurt him. He knew, because reading it had hurt. He was often numb, but not yet insensible enough to fail to recognize his own pain. He'd almost rather burn it, apart from the absence of a lighter, and the fact it was evidence. And that it would make him feel he might be unstable.
He wasn't feeling stable. Not at all.
Sherlock took out his phone and texted John unsteadily.
'Scotland Yard. Come at once.'
He had no way of knowing where John was. For instance, he was unaware that John was sitting on a bench across the street from the Yard, a hollow man, tormented by guilt, but still so loyal as to not trust Met police with his flatmate's wellbeing. When the phone in his pocket pinged, John took it out and read the message. He rubbed his swollen eyes with his fingers and wondered if he should go up there. Was he any good to Sherlock at all? God the trouble he'd made.
He'd killed a girl.
'I killed a girl.'
The reply came back.
'Where are you?'
John sighed and shut his eyes.
'I'm no good for this, Holmes. I can't help you. This whole nightmare is my doing.' He'd spent hours trying to figure out what he was going to say to Sarah. He couldn't find any path to follow that didn't also terminate their relationship. He couldn't do that. He needed that woman in his life, just the sound of her voice, the touch of her.
How had he let this happen?
His phone pinged.
'Who said she was dead?'