John blinked. The clouds cleared back from his shoulders. Daft flatmate! Who had said it? He'd said it, though not in so many words.
'You said six pints and she'd still be in critical trouble.' John fumbled across his phone's keyboard with an oath that startled a passerby.
Sherlock, in contrast, texted with the fleetness of a rabbit:
'Absent from sentence = the word dead.'
'Need assistant. Come now.'
'Bring blank sheet of paper folded as for a standard envelope: 240 mm x 165 mm.'
'Tuck it in your sleeve.'
Needed it in a hurry, did he? John got to his feet and stalked across the street with the light. Holmes could consider it done. He snatched up a paper from the first floor supply room and folded it into the right size. It went right up his sleeve, wrapped around his wrist, at the edge of his shirt-cuff. He took the stairs up, not because it was Sherlock's habit, but because they let out in a less obvious location than the elevators. On the way up, Sherlock texted him the number of the glass cube he was using as, John smiled at this, an office. Take that, Met police – Holmes had an office at the Yard.
When he exited on the floor, it was only a short walk to the clear box that Sherlock occupied. He eased around the corner and in through the door.
"No blinds yet?" John motioned at the walls as he crossed to the desk.
"If there were blinds, they couldn't watch me," Sherlock said simply. He looked up at John and blinked a little. "John… I'm sorry I-"
"Stop," John put both hands on the desk and leaned over it to look down on the letter. "So I'm assuming you're about to walk that out of here. Nothing Sofia wrote to you would be fit for the likes of Lestrade's team."
"Very good deduction," Sherlock nodded over his knit fingers. "They've headed to the coffee machine now. I'd like to switch them. Left sleeve, yes?"
"Absolutely. But you could tell that since I first came in." John acknowledged.
Sherlock nodded. He laid his own hands on the table. One settled on the envelope, and the other on the letter. He shut his eyes for a moment. "Lift up your hand and point at me when I say so." His gaze darted around him. "Let's go… now."
John lifted his left hand and pointed. "Okay, what's on?"
Sherlock seemed to shove his wrist away, but what he really did was pick up the softly pink letter in his right hand, as if showing it to John and shove John's pointing hand outward. His deft fingers nipped into John's sleeve – John felt the heat of them cross his wrist as Sherlock pulled out the folded paper there. When he laid his hand down, it was with two sheets, not one. He tucked both into the envelope, which he drew across the desk toward him. The pink paper slid out under his flattened hands. It had only been partially tucked away.
"She says things in this letter," Sherlock murmured softly. His hands knit on the desk, the pink letter now bowed between them, being folded over. "Things that… things they…."
"You don't need to explain it," John told him, "I get it."
Sherlock's green eyes darted up.
It was so moving, the way his expression went sometimes: when his brows drew up at the bridge of his nose like a study in helplessness. It cast away years off his age.
John nodded. "How do I get it into my coat?"
"Not yet." Sherlock drew his hands over the edge of the table and seemed to smooth his impeccable gray jacket. "Let me fold it smaller first." He rose to his feet and glanced across at John. "Oh, they're back. Are you ready? This will be quick."
Sherlock quickly shook his hand and neatly inserted the folded letter into his sleeve. John's eyes widened minutely, but he kept his calm and smiled. And that is how you stole off with evidence from inside a sealed glass box, broad daylight, in the middle of Scotland Yard. "Tricky, you are tricky."
"Frighteningly, that's one of my better qualities." Sherlock released him and looked at the floor a moment. "You didn't kill her, John. Not that I'm so certain she's dead… or not dead… but… you didn't kill her."
John lowered his head and flushed. He was miserable. "I'm sorry, Sherlock. So very sorry."
"Me too," Sherlock's great, infamous voice sounded hollow for a moment… and then snapped back as cold as a winter blast. "But you did no violence to that girl. You didn't kill her, John. Don't confuse integrity with culpability. You are a good man. It was a slip-up she should have checked on."
Mutely, because he couldn't trust his voice, John nodded at the floor.
Sherlock studied him closely for a moment before saying, "We're leaving."
"To where?" John blinked up at him.
"To supper. For you." Sherlock told him. "The day has been too eventful. It's getting late. I'm sure you haven't eaten since this all unfolded. All I ask is that you pick somewhere close to the Islington Central Library. There are a few good places nearby, and a nice little French coffee shop and delicatessen if your appetite hasn't recovered."
"If they trotted out a cow, I'd take a stab at it." John said in return.
Sherlock pulled on his coat and chuckled. "Then I'll think of something."
"And Lestrade's just going to let us go?"
"You expect they'll bar us in, or something?" Sherlock asked lightly.
"No, that would be sophomoric." John glanced back at the letter sitting atop the paperwork about the case on the desk behind him. "We should leave quickly, Sherlock."
"I know." Holmes pushed the door and glanced up at Lestrade. He did something he despised, then – he explained himself. "John needs food. I need to think. We're going."
"Keep an eye on your phone, Sherlock." Lestrade sipped coffee. "Let me know what you come up with." He called out on their heels.
John shoved the door to the stairs closed behind them and the pair of them bolted to the lower levels and out the front. They hurried down the street and lost themselves in foot traffic before ducking into a taxi. Sherlock heaved a sigh and pulled out his cell as they wove through cars for Islington.
John sat companionably with him and took out the letter. Sherlock stilled, but didn't look at him. John gave the paper a snuffle. Perfume. It smelled predatory. Such a perfumed letter was not the kind of missive Sherlock could ever allow people like Anderson, or Donovan, or any of dozens who despised him, to see. He'd made the right call.
John tapped the back of Sherlock's hand with it. "Look. Take this. It's not my business."
He might have been mistaken, but Sherlock seemed distinctly grateful when he closed his hand over the letter, and made it disappear, harmlessly, into his jacket pocket.
"Any clues in it?" John asked after several moments of road noise, London car-horns, and the soft patter of rain. It was still relatively early in the summer.
Sherlock turned his head, appreciatively. He said, "Yes. 2009; fire; Ark-Co."
"Ah," John said. "Thus the library, right?"
"Yes," Holmes held up his phone and showed him a home page for a large Pharmaceutical company called Ark-Co. "Among other things."
At the corner of Holloway Road and Fieldway Crescent, John led the way out of the cab into the late afternoon sun. The days were getting longer. This was a time that Sherlock didn't appreciate. He preferred the dark hours. His favourite seasons were the spring and autumn, with their balance of warmth and darkness. Therefore, it wasn't unexpected that, when he got out of the cab, he also glared at the western sky for not being a lusty shade of purple yet.
Sherlock glanced up at the edifice. "Hard to look at it and realize that people considered this library a curse," he tugged his gloves into place, glanced up at Edmund Spenser and Francis Bacon, and led the way inside.
"So what are we looking for?" John sucked in a deep, cool breath, musty with the unmistakable smell of books.
"The year 2009," Sherlock glanced over his shoulder at John. "It's not well hidden. This shouldn't take long." He grinned as they passed through a knot of students.
"Because we're looking for a fire in 2009, right?" John agreed.
Sherlock's brow wrinkled, "We are?"
"Sofia used the word fire," Sherlock noted. He turned around and walked backward through a sunny hallway. "Are we to assume she meant a fire, such as a house fire?"
"I don't think we can rule it out."
"Look, she tells me in the letter that she hasn't really been alive in two years. That is very straight forward. It tells me that when she mentions 2009, she's talking about the year, not a pin number, airport locker, ad nauseam," Sherlock ruffled his dark curls, which were still quite trim, and turned the right way around. "When she talks about fire, there are more possibilities. Two years ago, was she involved in a fire? She would have been 19 at the time. How does this line up with Ark-Co? That clue is very unclear. Ark-Co is a pharma-company that put a manufacturing facility in London in the 1990s. It creates millions, even billions of quid worth of drugs – profits a billion and a half dollars a year on Adheradall, alone, and another 320 million pounds annually on Vlaxa. Know what those are, John?"
"Drugs for ADHD," John said and then smiled, "Which 'you do not have'." Or that was the world, according to Sherlock.
"Yes. I don't. Thanks," Sherlock grinned irrepressibly. The death of a girl only clouded his mood intermittently. In truth, with a case at hand, he was largely an open sky. All was academic, and he felt very little when in the midst of a puzzle. "So, the little pigeon you decide to march in as a blind date hasn't felt alive in two years, and happens to be embroiled in some kind of debacle with the likes of Ark-Co, which makes billions of quid a year." They detoured down a narrow, cold set of stairs.
"Is that what she said?" John asked as they drew into a quieter part of the building.
"Is that was she said to you? That she hadn't felt alive in two years, I mean, implying that you were a quick-fix for that, you know, for her?" John zipped his coat against the wall of cooled air. At least it wasn't rolling off Holmes.
Sherlock did avoid his gaze, though. John had never met anyone quite like him – a man so secretive it was difficult to discern if he had a private life. John suspected there would be wall upon wall between Sherlock Holmes and even his dearest friend, whoever that was.
They ducked into a room that held several large microfiche machines, all of which were deserted at the current hour. Or perhaps they weren't terribly popular? Sherlock selected one, and flicked it on, then threw himself down into a chair. John pulled a chair over close to him and looked at the man's profile. It was frustrating when Holmes shut down. Talking to him, outside of cases, was a delicate act. Sherlock had once called an enemy of his a cipher. John, however, began to see that, between the two of them, the real cipher, the superior one, was Sherlock Holmes. Back dealing with the crooked cop who'd had Sherlock shot, it had been apparent from the condition of his work environment that he had everything to hide. But, with Sherlock, nothing in his life looked for show, and he seemed to conceal nothing. Ask him one question, any one, outside of a case, outside of deduction, and an answer would be in doubt. His evasions were artwork.
"Hm," Sherlock's brows went up. "Would you do me a favour and power up the others?"
Sherlock sat back, puzzled, "So that I can use all of them."
John grinned and turned on the other microfiche. He quickly got involved with one, which seemed particularly persnickety. Its controls were touchy and it scrolled far too fast. Yet he didn't give up on it until he'd learned the right tricks to control its output. Why he put himself through the effort, he wasn't entirely sure. Perhaps he simply excelled at dealing with difficult pieces of technology – he looked across at Sherlock. Point won.
In two hours, John had a list of all the notable fires in the London area for that year. He also idly wondered if, in two years, he would be able to come down here and scroll through 2011 to find the raging spat of arson fires behind The Burning Question case of late spring. His name, and Sherlock's, would probably never come up in the papers. Online, however, it was documented how the world's only Consulting Detective had broken the case. Not that the media was reading Doc John Watson, war vet's, blog. That was back before this horrible calamity had befallen Sofia Rothingham. Back when she'd had time and John might still have gotten Sherlock to her. If the girl felt alive after so short a meeting with Holmes, what could John say? That she was childish? Naïve? Sherlock would say those things. But John would say… that he understood perfectly. Sherlock Holmes had breathed his strange, distorted, inverted, and irrefutably real life into John. It had taken about five minutes and one meeting.
The man was magic – black magic. Good magic. He was-.
"What?" he looked back at Sherlock, surprised to find the man standing quite close by.
"I've said your name twice now," Sherlock noted peevishly and cocked his head.
"I was… I was just thinking."
"Dwelling isn't thinking," Sherlock slapped him in the side of the head with his gloves and John spun the chair and made a grab for the taller man. He was impossibly annoying.
"Get back here, you irritant," John chuckled. "Stop being so quick."
"That would be maladaptive," Sherlock stretched against one of the machines he reached down and carelessly switched off. Its whirr of fans died to nothing. "You need to eat. Your stomach is starting to growl loud enough to interrupt my train of thought. It's like having a resentful dog behind me."
John chuckled. "I suppose so. Feeling like Thai. Is there anything near?" He gave his stomach a soft rub, just under his sternum.
"Yeah," Sherlock's neck popped as he tipped it side-to-side to stretch the nerves. They had both settled their bones into research this afternoon, and now they were waking like bears after winter. John was stiff, grumbly, and hungry, and Sherlock, well, he wasn't the average bear.
Holmes brought them upstairs and out into a darkened, thankfully, rain-free, street. It was a very few blocks to the nearest Thai restaurant. John had expected much worse, given he was with Sherlock, and when Sherlock said a restaurant was 'near' he could often mean, you'd reach it within 30 minutes if you went at a dead run. His ground-eating dead run. As far as men went he was a race car.
"You seem surprised," Sherlock paused as he pulled the door.
"Uh, well, it's so… weird without the Russian mafia, or Chinese assassins, or even the police keeping tabs on us." John shook his head. "However shall I digest?"
"I'm sure something will arise." Sherlock was so charmed by John's sentiment that he gave a sudden wink, which was him in a very good mood. He walked inside smiling, and they found a table by the windows, so that Sherlock could look out into the street on his left and into the restaurant on his right. One never wanted to risk his boredom. In fact, Holmes was looking around now.
John scoffed. "Want to go walkies?"
"Shut up." Sherlock complained and then had to bite down on his lopsided smile. "You make me sound like the family spaniel, doing that."
"I'd have gone with sniffer-dog."
"God," Sherlock exhaled and began to fiddle with the little oil lamp whose cupped flame had been disturbed by his sigh, "will you never let that go?"
"Looks like City Police are thinking you'd be a good addition there, too. What's going on with that? That woman, Warren? She was staring stick pins into you. You worked with her before?"
"Never," Sherlock shook his head gently. "But I have figured out their cases in the past and called in tips. This is all anonymous of course," he peeled the paper from straws their server had set on the table before them. "I tried to work with them in person once, I mean… I was kind of much… younger."
"How young?" John joined his hands under his chin, fascinated by this little vignette.
"The investigating officer said he'd grind my bones to make his bread." Sherlock actually flushed and then chuckled, which proved he'd found it funny in retrospect.
After they ordered drinks, John unrolled his napkin and gazed around the nicely lit restaurant. He heard the bustle of other people – people who lived in a shallower world than the one Sherlock occupied – going about their business, like it was no more than white noise. They were like frogs in wells, unable to see the big picture, the full sky. He thought they lived separated from reality.
"Tea and lemonade," the server told them happily. "And you're not hungry, right sir? I just need to confirm that's true."
"Go tell your boss I mean it." Sherlock gently sipped tea, a nonpareil of tea-cup etiquette.
She gave a little bow. Sherlock inclined his head, just so, and she scurried away. Then he leaned back in his seat at the small square table. Holmes looked out through glass dotted with light from the intersection beyond and said. "What did you find? I saw you were looking up information about fires."
John took a folded sheet of paper from his pocket and handed it over to Sherlock. The man scanned a list of fires inside London city limits. John tried to guess his thoughts.
No loops or hooks in open letters, such as a and o. Honest.
Mild, uniform slant. Not varied.
Cautious. Careful. Stable.
They were quite opposite in nature. Sherlock tucked the page inside of his pocket, and considered John. It put a trifling smile on Sherlock's face. "Any connections to Ark-Co?"
"None that I could find," John took a swallow of his lemonade and crunched the tiny ice chips. "The closest thing I got was a car fire within a block of the place."
"Curious," Holmes' brows drew down. He was interested in this development. He whipped up his phone and started searching the internet. "What was the cause determined to be?"
"Recall on an engine part ignored." John said.
"Type of car?"
Sherlock found it and started reading, his brows drawn down as John's Kai yang arrived with a liberal side of rice. John knew better than to delay. At any moment, something could strike Sherlock, and he would be out the door, so John – who was generally famished by the time Sherlock dragged them into a restaurant – had learned to dine efficiently. For instance, he'd paid in advance.
He looked up at Holmes. "You had five machines going at once. What did you find?"
"I found out that Sofia Rothingham didn't exist before two years ago. I mean, my phone tells me there are records of her, but scratch the surface and she goes away. I could find no record of a graduation from an art school – not everyone announces that in the papers anymore, of course, but the more telling thing is that she has no birth announcement in North Yorkshire, which, if you've heard her out for more than a few minutes, is where she was born."
John paused over his chicken. "Oh, come on now. That's out of that flick, what's-it called? It has Hepburn as Eliza Doolittle and-"
My Fair Lady.
"-Sherlock! It's out of a show. People aren't really able to do something like that though, you know, figure where everyone comes from just from them talking for a minute or so. She could have moved all over England and picked that up. People move all the time, so you don't really know-"
Sherlock winced and tapped his phone. He turned on the cell's speaker and held it out across the table to sit almost at the end of John's nose. He could easily read the name Sofia R on the screen and her phone number. Then her answering machine went off.
'I'm not in right now. If you've got somewhat that you've got to talk to me about, please leave a number. Unless it's about bills. Okay. Just kidding.' beep!
Sherlock hung up the cell and tucked it into his pocket. "North Yorkshire."
They both sat in silence. Sherlock was now subdued and didn't lift his eyes from the table.
"You've called her." John sat back and blinked widely at the realization. "Oh wow. That's how you knew her message would, you know, prove she was from one place or another. She's programmed on your phone and you've called her."
Holmes sipped his tea unthinkingly. He looked like he didn't taste it. His eyes remained silently oriented on the sugar dish before him. The message was crystalline: John, drop it. And usually, John would. But this was tremendous and he couldn't ignore it.
"Sherlock…. How long have you been calling her? I mean, when did this start? Were you calling her in the spring?"
"It's not like that. It's – no." Sherlock cut the speech stream off abruptly.
John's jaw sagged. He pulled it back, "So what is it like, then?"
"I just thought," he took a breath – made a soft huff of it, actually, "that I should apologize, you know, after I left the restaurant. Because you were furious, as you recall. And you hurt my arm. Ergo what I'd done had been a serious thing, interpersonally, so I looked her up online and called her to prove to myself, one way or another-" his voice abruptly fell away.
Silence hovered like candle smoke over the table.
John had been blindsided.
Sherlock wasn't a man who made connections. He didn't reach out to others without a damn good reason, and that went triple for women, or so John had seen. What did it mean? Did Sherlock know? Well… if he did, why did he seem so confused? John's chair creaked as he leaned back a little. Okay. Careful now. "Did you call her more than once?"
Sherlock's head rose minutely, and John saw it coming – the flash of pride and half-lidded eyes with his lip's faint pursing. He was about to shut off. And then it all fell away. His chin dropped and his eyes began to widen. Light flushed across his face – John could see pupils pull back from the pale foggy jade of irises. And then Sherlock scooted up onto the table, literally had a knee on it, so he could grab two fistfuls of John's coat and pull him out of his seat with that uncanny strength of his.
"Sherlock, what madness are you-"
A whooshing sound; the light became blinding.
Sherlock unleashed all the power in his long legs and heaved them both up and back. John had only just begun to turn his head when glass, wood, insulation, wiring, table legs, stone tiles, all sorts of debris, pelted him. It flew in time with what had to be the bottomless, ground-shaking whump of a mortar shell. No. Not a mortar. His brain was replaying the sound of a mortar. He saw flashes of red. The roar of an engine so close he could smell fuel, that was real, and in the sudden sparking darkness of midair, it hit him.
Pain lanced through him, but Sherlock's long fingers still had hold. In the darkness, it was hard to make anything out. John took Sherlock's full weight for a stunningly painful moment. It drove the wind out of him as Holmes' elbows came down, and John had only kinesthesia to tell him that Sherlock had tumbled over him and crashed into something brittle that snapped. Then John skidded up along the momentum bearing down on them. He clawed for the front of Sherlock's coat, but it was too far, and those long white fingers were now nerveless.
They'd let John go.
When he came too again, John was outside in the smell of smoke. He was disoriented and bleeding. He didn't know what happened. Something about a vehicle…? Oh shit. IED. Where were the rest of his unit? "Staff Sergeant Cook?" he wheezed and forced his eyes open.
No answer because… he was on the sidewalk. In London.
Cook was about 6000 kilometers North East of here as the crow flew, and may God find him in better condition than his Army surgeon right now.
Getting up – fighting to his unsteady feet – was hard. John's clothes were scuffed, as was his skin, which was red with sliding down the walk and half onto the parking lot. He couldn't describe the soreness in his battered body, it hurt to breathe. Moving made his nerve endings fry. But there was this little problem: he was outside the restaurant, and the screaming and unbridled panic was inside. With Holmes. And he could smell smoke and see the flicker of flames. John wiped blood from his face and sucked a valiant breath.
"Sherlock?" he bellowed as he made his way in through the massive hole in the front of the Thai restaurant. And, oh God, his server was dead, crushed under the massive, red, runaway truck. He ducked down and pushed inside through a passage so narrow it wouldn't have admitted a larger man. "Sherlock Holmes! Sherlock!" Smoke was becoming thick in here.
Many of the cute little lanterns had toppled, and they were full of oil. Table cloths had lit. John punched out the fire extinguisher by the door on his right and started spraying the larger of two fires. He shouted at dazed diners and staff, "Front door is behind me. Everyone grab your neighbour and move-move-move!"
The sudden draft made the second fire flare. People finally stopped staggering around and stumbled sensibly out of the building.
"Sherlock!" John hurried through the sparking darkness alone. He nearly fell over Holmes.
Apart from his long legs, Sherlock was under a table. He seemed to have crawled there. Just as John was finding him, he was sitting up and blinking, but he was exceedingly dazed. Blood had made a veneer from his hairline down his cheek, and into his shirt. John caught hold of Sherlock's hands – they were pulling his knees slowly up to his chest. He was shaking. Not calm. Or together. Not like John.
So John dropped to one knee. He had to reach his flatmate quickly. "Sherlock. Look at me."
The green eyes were having issues with focus, but they looked at the sound of his voice. He wasn't really conscious yet. It was some twilight state between being awake, and being home.
"You need to come with me now." John gave a tug, but Sherlock wouldn't budge. "Look around you! The smoke is getting thick. The place is on fire!"