Sherlock's voice had that low, gravelly warmth it took on when he was satisfied with something. He was hunching above his mobile phone, tapping away. "Yes, good. Very good, John! They have multiple University Hire Programmes. One of their College Outreaches is to Askham Bryan, which has a campus in Bedale; they're looking for nurses... and… according to Ark-Co Online they only College-hire the best and brightest."
"So we know the year she would have graduated," John gave up and climbed out swathed in a massive towel – pink with tea roses. The girl liked her towels. And her pink.
"We do," Sherlock nodded and turned to show John the phone extended on his long, indefatigable arm. "Plug that into Askham Bryan's school records for Top Ten Most Proficient and you have… six names, John. One of these girls is Sofia. I just need photos. Yearbooks. Something. I've been all over the apartment – she doesn't have anything. On the Internet there's a photo here and there, but nothing from her year so far, and nothing solid." Sherlock's hand dropped to his side and he exclaimed. "Have these people never heard of Facebook?"
John barked with laughter and had to catch one bit of the towel.
Sherlock's eyes widened. "Oh my God, you're…. Your side, it's..." his free hand waggled in air, "purple, like a plum." Holmes looked grim for a moment, before he bounced forward again. His tone was low and serious, "John, look, maybe you should sit this next part out. We should take you to see Sarah. She can-"
"No she can't." John said leadenly. "It just needs to heal, Sherlock. That's all."
"I think, John – I believe going to Sarah with something like this is a wise-"
"No, damn it, Sherlock, will you just try to think, for once!" John snapped. He regretted it immediately.
Sherlock had gone still. Sherlock always thought. John knew he did. So he could deduce that by 'think' John probably meant something else, something esoteric enough to require the quick shorthand. Knowing John, he very likely meant feel. Sherlock rarely felt his way through things. He simply did them. Faced with this, Sherlock wasn't sure what to do. "Not right, yes? Did something wrong?"
God. John looked at the floor searchingly and wondered if he'd hurt his flatmate. Probably not, he judged: Sherlock Holmes was unassailable. Or kept a lot inside. If that was so…. "Sorry. Sorry for that. That was… yeah. And, Sarah, see, she doesn't know yet. Sofia's her friend, and I haven't – I don't know how to tell her I forgot about the note, and now Sofia's, uh-" John didn't want to reach the end of that line. How dismal it sounded. And was.
Sherlock smoothed his jacket absently, turned, and left the hallway without a word.
It wasn't personal. He was finished with the conversation.
John joined him in the front room some minutes later. He was standing just past the stairs and studying the bloody walls. As soon as John came to a stop behind him, Holmes half-turned and looked up at him. "John… we have to tell Sarah."
He didn't say anything more. Instead, he walked up the stairs and clapped John on the shoulder before he went to his coat hanging on one of the hooks on the back of the door. "Problem one."
John walked out in his wake and watched Sherlock stab the lock with Sofia's key and give a deft twist of his wrist. He didn't move like anyone else John had ever met. That was part of his magic. When he turned off those movements and 'became someone else' through his art of disguise, he could become just about invisible.
Sherlock looked aside at John. "The state of her dining room indicates a very bloody event. The rug is missing. Natural expectation is that the body is rolled in the rug and removed. That's the simplest explanation." He turned and leaned his long frame on the door. "Do you know what's bothersome about this, John?"
John opened his arms, "Where do I begin?"
Now Holmes cocked his head. He gave the floor a tap with the heel of his excellent shoe. John looked down at it. "Noise? I mean, are you bothered that it would have made a ton of noise?"
"Artists are a noisy lot, lugging equipment in and out. Besides, inspiration is never quiet. Think about the floor John. Think about gravity." Sherlock blew past John as if not a millimeter of his body knew the meaning of discomfort. John still felt sore and out of sorts, but he'd had many a day like that in the field, so he soldiered on. That's what he was, after all.
John walked away a few steps on with his frown on the floor as he went. A sudden snapshot of the surgery in Afghanistan flickered through his memory and then his head came up. "Blood. There should be blood on the floor. I mean… there would be no cleaning up the drops from wood plank."
"They could have wrapped her in a tarp. One assumes she painted on her deck since she had an easel out there. She had a few waterproofed tarps inside that would have protected a 5x5 canvas from the elements." Sherlock said and then added. "However, the two I saw were in her bedroom. Nothing there appears to have been disturbed."
He pushed the button and waited then shoved the filigreed steel door for the lift aside. When he stepped in, he immediately got the sliding pocket magnifier out. Sherlock studied the buttons and closed the thing to turn his attention to the floor.
"Tile is old enough to have cracks and a lot of wear," John remarked. "It would show blood."
"Not to mention the fact the dirt on this floor is weeks, maybe months old. It hasn't been cleaned." he muttered. "She had a large injury. She was bleeding." He plucked his bottom lip and postulated.
Body in tarp.
Tarp in rug.
Two layers between victim and open air.
Clumsy to move.
Impossible to control pooling and flow of blood.
High probability of blood escaping.
No blood drops outside of dining room.
"How did they get her out?" he muttered to himself. Sherlock refused the lift. He walked down the fretful wood stairs, suspended, as they were from a tall rectangle of solid brick, air slowly swirling around his ankles, seeing as the staircase wasn't enclosed.
John shuddered a little when he looked down. Then he realized. "So, Sherlock. I have no idea how they got her out of here. I mean, there should be some sign. What does that mean?"
"Means we're going around back," Sherlock said. "No matter how improbable the means, the person who did this left the building with a rug, and a woman. Period." Sherlock rubbed his forehead and winced.
"Yeah, don't do that."
Sherlock paused by the front door, "Itchy."
"Don't scratch," John reached in his pocket and took out an alcohol swab. "Don't scratch while it's trying to heal. If it gets bad, you need to clean it with this. It'll help."
Holmes rolled his eyes and refused the tiny package with the alcohol towelette inside. This meant that, an hour and a half later, after he'd been up and down what seemed like every inch of the alley more times than John cared to count, Sherlock sat on a stoop with his long legs extended before him as John swabbed the injury. With it cleaned, John folded the swab and pressed it to Sherlock's forehead. He held it there and smirked as Sherlock fidgeted. It wasn't pain, but relief. His usually roving pale green eyes were shut lightly.
Eventually, he sighed, "I wish I wasn't like this."
"Hurt?" John nodded in agreement. "I wish you weren't too." He looked up at the blue sky, rolling with clouds, up above the valley of buildings they sat in. Peaceful day. Kind of.
Sherlock's green eyes half-opened, "No, I meant human."
John's image of the blue above, the sunny day, and the pleasure of his flatmate's genius went dim. He suffered a deep chill, but like the body wave of an earthquake event, it was far down in his interior. "What else would you be?"
Sherlock looked into his hands, "Something better than this."
John stepped away and tossed the swab in the trash – he thought Sherlock already was. He glanced back, "We should head somewhere. Get you some fluids."
"I'm not ready yet."
John's lip curled. "What does that mean?"
"It means we're not done here yet." His pale eyes followed something else in the alley.
When John turned, he saw a teenaged girl with a bloody mouth and chin was limping along the span between buildings toward them. Sherlock had already been watching her approach.
"Hey!" John called out to her. She slowed, which was the natural reaction of a young woman hailed in an alleyway by two strange men. John pointed at his lip. "I'm a doctor. Can I take a look at your abrasions?"
Sherlock rose from the steps, which made John curse inwardly. His razor-like stare and six foot plus frame did nothing to reassure the girl. This was clear from the way her hands gripped the handles of the bike. But she also looked curious about him.
Holmes sized her up for a moment, tucked his hands in his pockets, and walked over toward her. His eyes were now on the sky blue bicycle she pushed along with her.
"And they call them comfort bikes," Sherlock frowned at the large wheels. "Full-length chain guard would have been a wiser option…. I can fix that."
"At least as well as Doctor Watson, over there, can fix the scuff on your chin," Sherlock said with a glance of practiced sympathy. It was something he'd picked up from television. "I'd be a little more worried about the sprained ankle you're walking around on."
"He's really a doctor?" She glanced his way.
"He really is," Sherlock glanced around the other side of the bike. "You took a tumble. Looks like you nearly had a collision. Red paint on the back freehub-"
"A guy cut in front of me to make a corner before the lights!" She pointed a herself with a jagged fingernail. "Not my fault. I ended up all over the walk. Look at my face!"
Sherlock sized her face up and determined, "He deserves a scratch. John?"
"Here," John didn't pay any attention to the bike. He was looking at the girl's ankle. He shifted his attention to inspect her face. "Ah, what a right bastard that driver was. You could have hit your head without a helmet."
She flushed and glanced at where Sherlock laid a hand on the bike.
"Hey, don't try anything funny, big guy. I live in this building," she pointed at the one beside them, opposite Sofia's. It must have been a bit confusing when Sherlock told her 'I know', but she was in enough physical discomfort that she agreed to hobble off and sit on the step Sherlock had occupied, so that John could get a better assessment.
"Hit your head?" John asked her.
"Landed on my face." She said darkly. She had a small, pretty face – possibly part Asian.
Sherlock carried over the bike. It looked curiously small with him. He sat on the stoop beside the girl and turned the bike upside down so that it stood on its seat and handlebars. Sitting before it, he inspected the wheels first.
John caught hold of her head.
"Hey! Don't do anything, I'm warning you!" she wailed.
"Relax," Sherlock told her conversationally. "We're with the police. You've seen them about, yes? Yesterday evening and they're back this morning?"
"Yeah," she let John move her head about on her neck. "Police have doctors on staff?"
"I have," Sherlock glanced back at her. "I'm a specialist. A Consulting Detective working with Scotland Yard and the City Police. How's her head?"
"Good," John sighed and peered into her face. "Her pupils even and reacting to light, normally. You need to get a helmet, miss."
"Okay, dad." She scoffed in retort.
Sherlock smiled at this and John gave him a hard look. At the very least, he turned away to hide his amusement, and went back to the bike. John took out another alcohol towelette and went to work on the young woman's chin. Surprisingly, there was no complaint of the sting, though she did look grim.
After a moment, the girl asked, "So why are the police up in that apartment?"
John paused and glanced at Sherlock so quickly he could feel the wind of his half-turn. Sherlock was entirely unsurprised. "You live on the fourth floor. When you came into the alley, I saw you look up at your window."
The girl froze, "You… did?"
"I did." Sherlock picked up a nearby fragment of wood and jabbed the stuck bike chain with it.
Sheepishly she said, "I saw you too. I saw you on the balcony yesterday afternoon, you know, where the artist girl usually stands before she paints stuff."
Sherlock looked the young woman's way, "Her name is Sofia. Her loft is full of paintings, so many, in fact, that they hang from wires on the ceiling. It's engulfing."
The girl sat back slightly, out of John's ministering hands, clearly trying to imagine.
Meanwhile, John blinked. From the ceiling? They did? He… hadn't noticed.
The girl nodded. "Yeah… I admire that. Artists, I mean. I respect them."
"So you would watch out for her. She never knew this, but you would check on her, wouldn't you. That's your nature. You're like Doctor Watson, here: the protective type. Another person would have run the bike into the car rushing at them and then pinned the driver for a small fortune, but you couldn't do this. It's against your ethical system." Sherlock turned away from the bike and picked up her hand. He turned it over in his much larger white palm and pointed at a tattoo on her wrist. "Tattoos are so easy, so autobiographical. Modern simplified Chinese for mountain."
She blinked and showed him her other wrist.
"Flower," he said. "So you see yourself as very strong but also welcoming, companionable. You are responsible. So you checked on Sofia as a matter of course. When I showed up on her balcony-"
"Yeah, so, I've never seen anyone else up there. Let alone a guy." She glanced over Sherlock. "I thought you might be, you know, her boyfriend or something, but she didn't come out."
"No," Sherlock released her hand and looked off to her left. "She didn't. She's missing. So tell me… what did you see?"
John finished cleaning the cut in her chin and carefully pasted the butterfly bandage in his back pocket over it. He moved on to her lower lip.
"I didn't see anything." She said… and then paused. "The lights were on all night over there. I mean, that's not right. It's not like I know her, but."
Sherlock told the girl. "Trust your wits. It isn't right. Tell me what you saw."
"Shadows on the blinds, like two or three almost like… fussing with the blinds – like she doesn't have people over there that I've ever seen, and here are all these guys-"
"So two or three men?" Sherlock waved John's efforts off and interjected.
"Yeah," she looked up at the building beside them and thought. "Something else, too, I thought I heard something hit the ground. It was really late, but I thought I heard something. Just it's dark as pitch in this alley at night, you know, at this time of year?"
"There aren't lamps," Sherlock motioned around him.
"Right, just the door-light halfway down, and that light-bulb has been out for about a year. I know because, I can sleep with my curtains open now." It made her frown. "I didn't get up, you know, because it was so late. I… I wonder if anyone else did." She looked up at Sherlock and had to blink away the beginnings of tears. "You think that was her… don't you?"
"Did it sound soft, and like it had give?" Sherlock asked her.
"It sounded like the noise you get when someone throws down a big stack of newspapers, before you cut the plastic ties that keep them together? Like… heavy and muffled. It was so loud though, I mean, how stupid could they be?" She rubbed an eye and hunched up, unhappily.
"Oh," John nodded at her as he returned to attending to her lip. "I've worked with Sherlock, here, for a while now. I'm sorry to say that, in that time, I've learned never to undervalue the stupidity of the human mind."
Her expression was stark at the sentiment.
"Speaking of which, you have a sprained ankle. I expect you to go upstairs, have your parents take you to the nearest surgery, and for you to follow the doctor's orders, okay? You want to protect someone, start with yourself. You won't be much of a mountain if the foothills can't hold you up."
"Yeah, funny," she told him wryly. "Thanks, doc."
Sherlock finished fiddling with the chain and turned the bike over. He lifted it up and put it on the landing. John held the door for the girl to go inside. The bike now made the telltale proper clicking as she leaned on it and navigated the hall of the apartment complex.
"If you hear about anything else," John detained the girl a moment, "call Scotland Yard and ask to leave a message for Sherlock Holmes." He stood in the doorway to be sure she made it to the lift all right, and raised a hand in parting as she smiled from inside.
When he turned, he was forced to fall back against the door lest he stomp on one of Sherlock's paws. Holmes had collapsed over the stairs, head thrown back, and arms extended above him, like a happy housecat in the sun. The expression on his face was nothing short of beatific.
"What are you doing?" John admonished, "And why are you grinning?"
Sherlock ruffled his dark hair a little before he sat up and got to his feet. "Let's get you some breakfast, shall we?" He stuck his hands in his pockets and wandered away.
"Wait-wait!" John minced along behind him, still too stiff to make much of go of running. "You were not grinning contemplating my bloody breakfast, Sherlock. Don't be coy!"
"God. Me. Coy." He actually opened his arms and started laughing.
"Sherlock, fine, then don't be cryptic – that better." John scurried in beside the man. "And the … the 'Mountain/Flower' girl, why don't I feel like she's a coincidence?"
"Because she's not." Sherlock walked and watched John. "But there is an element of luck here. Yesterday, on the balcony, three people watched me from across the way, but she's the only one who really seemed to mean it. Those few seconds' observation kept nagging on me until I realized she knew something was wrong. How could she know that? She'd watched over here before. She knew something unusual was going on. Maybe she thought Sofia had moved and was simply curious, maybe she wondered at all the police cars, but... what if she'd seen something? What if she wasn't sure what she'd witnessed? Well… looking at her age, and the hour of the day, as well as the relative position of this apartment, this is the most likely point of exit and entrance for her. Simply hunting two birds with one stone – search the alleyway; see if I lucked into the girl. And luck. Very good luck."
"Something to smile about, I guess," John said guardedly.
"Oh that wasn't it." He turned and walked backward in front of John for several steps. "I was grinning because Sofia's not dead. Now let's breakfast, shall we?" He spun in a belling out of his designer coat. "Could really use a cup of tea."
John couldn't sit still, couldn't look at her, as Sarah crossed the filtered sun of the deli to arrive at their table. Once she'd found him, recessed as they were, she'd hurried over to him and pulled a chair for herself. John, staring disconsolately at the paper mat before him, felt more than saw her fingers reach out and fold over his joined hands.
"Sherlock called me. John, will you look at me? What's happening? What's wrong?"
John gathered himself before he turned his gaze to her. She was so pretty and soft. Her long hair was currently pinned back in a fabric flower clip that looked like a pale blue rose and a pair of buds. Why did she seem, to him, to be across the Channel when she was right in front of him? Sarah seemed, somehow, to respond to this. She reached out a hand and smoothed her fingertips across one of his eyelids, gently as a breeze. They came away with tears.
"John," she sounded breathy. "You're scaring me."
"Worst part is… it doesn't get any better." John sucked in air and steeled himself. "Sarah, I inadvertently created a situation… and Sofia's missing. I don't know if she's alive or dead." He didn't add that it was not looking good.
Sarah's body went rigid with unpleasant surprise. In fact, John could feel her fingers stiffen inside his hands. He didn't release her, and had no plans to unless she forced the matter. The sounds of the moderately full deli around them, the terror in her eyes, and some score or other of Bond's looping overhead, became the soundtrack for this horrible, vaguely mad, and definitely stomach-grinding moment.
"What are… you going on with?" Sarah shook her head. "No, John. I talked to Sofia, Friday."
"Sarah, I'm so sorry. The trouble she was having, the issues Sherlock conjectured she was facing, back in spring… they caught up with her. She sent a letter, but I was taking care of him, you know, after The Photography Club case. I held it back from him…. She's gone, and I honestly don't know if she's dead or alive. I'm so sorry."
"Sherlock, don't." John swung toward Holmes' deep voice, and Sherlock stopped his advance on the table and backed up a few steps.
Sarah got to her feet and turned in Holmes' direction.
Hurriedly, Sherlock offered her a coffee. She ignored it and stared wordlessly at him. Of a sudden, her great, round eyes spilled out tears. They slid down her lower lashes and leapt for it, onto her coat.
Sherlock backed up and sucked a breath. "John. Get up here."
John did exactly that. He rose from his seat and wrapped his arms around Sarah from behind. She caught hold of his hands around at her waist and shuddered silently, a strong woman, a staunch confidante, and devoted to her friends. To lose one was a staggering blow for her. John could hardly bear to touch her having been the cause of this misery. If she'd slapped his hands away, he would have been able to understand the sentiment.
"All right, I'm okay..." Sarah squeezed John's hands as a signal she'd had enough and he released her. Reluctantly. "Let me think," she said a bit brokenly, for several seconds, no one moved, and then she stepped forward. Her head rose. She considered Sherlock Holmes before her. He looked unmoved and supremely confident. Not careworn in the least.
And what he said was, "Don't want coffee, then?" He offered a cup again.
Sarah gave a little burst of laughter and glanced at John to check if he'd heard the same. That much, John could nod to confirm. "Coffee," Sarah took both cups from Sherlock and passed them to John to set on the table. Unoccupied, Sherlock's hands sank down beside him, just like the emotions that coloured him had faded. When Sarah returned her gaze to him, it left nothing between them but the blatant power of his full attention. Men had withered under that gaze.
But Sarah Sawyer frowned, glided forward, and slipped her arms around Holmes. His frame stiffened, but he stayed put. Her face was in his chest, which left him little to read with those great green scanners of his. "I'm sorry, Sherlock," she said.
That part of him – the pure spectator – shut down, and Sherlock finally touched her. He set his long hands on the upper arms of her smart little coat, and rubbed gently. He told her, "Sarah, I see it in your face. I'm doing it. You needn't be desperate for my help…."
She stepped back and straightened herself, then returned to the table. There, she sank in one of the plain wood chairs and took up the coffee Sherlock had bought her in shaking hands. She was mildly amazed that it was her favourite.
When Sherlock's fingers came to rest against John's shoulder, he jumped. He'd been so fixed on how Sarah was holding up. "Sit down, John."
"What? Me?" John glanced up at his flatmate.
"You look… wobbly. Sit." Sherlock nodded. John took the seat across from Sarah.
They had a recessed table. Doing this in a public place had been Sherlock's insistence, a safety valve, John felt, for Sherlock's own unsightly emotions. It had worked, in its way, and this small corner had given them what shelter it, and its half-wall, could.
Holmes dropped into the chair beside Sarah and turned in her direction. He leaned with his head tipped to one side and peeked around her hair. "You should both eat now. Emotions are… overtaxing."
"My appetite's done," Sarah glanced at him ruefully. Her eyes still glittered with tears.
"Lovely. I ordered a basket of chips," Sherlock told them. "Should be by soon. Not eating will do nothing to improve the situation."
"I have to say I'm gutted, Sherlock." John shook his head.
"But you'll still have to eat. You have a lot in front of you." Sarah glanced across at him sympathetically. "Besides, you would never harm Sofia intentionally, John. Whatever else came to pass, you don't have it in you. Right now, please just let's focus on helping Sherlock to find her."
"You have work." John pointed out.
She blinked and then said quite candidly. "One of my friends is missing and may be dead. I'm going to do whatever's required to get her back."