Sherlock supposed he should have expected the police to be there, red and blue lights flashing against the walls of the alleys and yellow tape cordoning off the crumbling brick building. What he didn't expect was that Lestrade's 'team' would consist of nearly 25 people, some clustered around the cop cars, some rushing in and out of the building.
Exiting the cab and handing the cab driver a twenty, Sherlock took quick strides to the crime scene, sending Sally and Anderson a contempt glance as he passed them. Anderson called, "Where's your boyfriend, Sherlock? Got tired of you already?"
Sherlock grit his teeth and lengthened his strides, their laughter fading away as he pushed past the officers stationed at the doorway and stepped into the building, his eyes quickly adjusting to the darker interior.
The large, gaping room was empty save a small cluster of officers in the middle, Lestrade among them. Sherlock caught Lestrade's eye halfway there, and Lestrade quickly excused himself before approaching Sherlock. "What're you doing here?" Lestrade asked before he had even reached Sherlock, his brow furrowed. "I didn't call you."
Sherlock made a point of never acting confused. For the most part, he never had to worry about it—he left the confusion to others, sometimes causing it himself. This time, however, he couldn't help but say, "Of course I came. This is John's last known location." He thought he successfully kept the slight tint of bewilderment out of his voice—why would Lestrade be here if not for John?
Lestrade swore. "That explains a lot." He ran a hand over his face, pursing his lips. "Come on." He turned and retreated back to the group, Sherlock following him. The crowd parted wordlessly for the two of them, officers fixing Sherlock with various degrees of curious and contempt looks. He ignored them, all of his attention focused on the center of the huddle.
It only took him a fraction of a second to deduce that the woman sitting slumped in a chair in front of him was not Mary Morstan. Her bone structure was that of a woman in her mid-thirties, not upper teens, and the message carved across her chest in bloody letters—Where is Mary Morstan?—struck Sherlock in the literal sense rather than the spiritual. He knelt down next to the woman, examining her hands, ankles, face, clothing, and such, and then glanced over his shoulder at Lestrade. "She's in her mid-thirties—around 34 or 35—and lives alone. However, this is strange." Grabbing a pair of rubber gloves from a nearby box, Sherlock took the woman's hand and turned it palm-up. "Callouses along the flesh just under the fingers and on the thumb. This woman didn't sit behind a desk—she worked manually, most likely on a farm."
Lestrade frowned. "There are no farms in London."
Sherlock sighed. "Obviously." He prepared to lecture Lestrade on the nature of transportation; however, he was interrupted when another officer pushed through the group and extended a slim file to Lestrade.
"Missing Persons found a match," he explained, watching as Lestrade opened the file and scanned the documents inside. "Sadie Perkins, age 34."
Lestrade looked at the officer questioningly. "She's not from London."
"No, sir. The report states that she was visiting family just outside of London when she disappeared. Originally, she's from—"
"Scotland." Sherlock let go of the woman's hand and stood, peeling the gloves off in one smooth motion and discarding them on the floor.
The officer clearly knew whom Sherlock was because he didn't even sound remotely surprised when he said, "Exactly. Scotland."
Lestrade, however, couldn't help himself. "How could you possibly have known that?"
"John is from Scotland." Sherlock grabbed Lestrade's arm and dragged him away from the rest of the group, ignoring Lestrade's protest and the curious glances of the rest of the officers. It wasn't until he put a good distance between himself and the others—enough that he wouldn't be overheard—that he turned on Lestrade and asked, "Where is John? Have you seen him? He must have been here when you arrived."
"You know as well as I do that he's not here."
Sherlock put his palms together and pressed the tips of his fingers in between his eyes, pressing hard enough for it to hurt. "He was. He came here, he found her, and then what?"
He knew. Sherlock knew, deep down, what had happened to John. It was written all over the factory: in the fibers of burlap left on the woman's skin from an absent bag; in the scuffed dirt and dust near the foot of the chair neatly outlining John's shoe size; in the fingerprints being lifted from the woman's skin, ones Sherlock already knew would match John's exactly. But he couldn't know. If he knew, that would make it real, and if it were real, then Sherlock couldn't help but feel it. And if he felt it…
No. John wasn't dead. Not yet. If John still breathed, then Sherlock didn't have to face anything.
"He came, he found her, and then what?" Sherlock repeated, his voice leveling, flattening. "And then he was taken."
Lestrade looked stricken. "What?"
"When our killer wants something, what does he do?" Sherlock met Lestrade's wide, horrified eyes with his own, and somehow, Lestrade's own falling apart let him keep himself together. "He takes it."
Lestrade struggled for words for a moment. "The message," he finally managed. "It asks for Mary, not John. If the killer had Mary, why say that? Why take John? Why leave another woman tied to a chair in some abandoned building?"
Sherlock thought. The note, threatening Mary's life to entice John out into the open; the message, asking for the location of Mary, demanding information from whomever found it; John, lured into the building by the threatening of one person and then taken for the sake of that same person.
A lure himself.
"I believe," Sherlock said, turning to glance at the dead woman in the chair once more, "that we have been played."
Mary runs into John's arms, sobbing. She blubbers words that he can't understand, gripping the backs of his shoulders tightly and nestling her face into the crook of his neck. He holds her to him, rubbing soothing circles on her back, feeling the sheer fabric of her shirt smooth against his fingertips. "Hey," he murmurs, half-comforting, half-terrified. "What happened?"
"I can't," Mary gasps, her sobs wracking her body and making her words choke in her throat. "I can't do this anymore, John."
"Can't do what?" John continues to rub circles. He's not sure who he's calming anymore—himself or Mary. "What's wrong?"
Suddenly, Mary pulls back and meet's John's eyes, hers full of an emotion so intense John can't place it, can't even comprehend it. "I love you," she says, and these words are strong and sure. "I'm in love with you, John."
Even though she's said it times before, this feels different to John, like the words never meant anything from anyone until this moment. His fingers stop mid-circle, his breaths stilling in his chest, and for the longest moment, he simply looks at Mary. Despite her trembling that he can still feel underneath his hands, she stands determined, like nothing before this has ever mattered like this and nothing after it ever will. Her eyes, so often comparable to oceans and rolling tides, now glisten like ice underneath a pale sun, rock-hard and unyielding, yet soft deep down. As each moment passes, they fracture more and more, strength giving way for whatever supposed weakness lies underneath, and John breaks with them.
"I love you too," he says, pulling Mary into a tight hug. "Of course I do."
He'll be the one to keep her together.
John awoke with a gasp, Mary's name on his lips. For a horrifying moment, he experienced complete disorientation, struggling against the ropes binding his wrists and ankles, feeling the burlap sack around his head and tied at the neck like a plastic bag, suffocating him bit by bit. Then, his heart racing, he sank back and abandoned the struggle. Really, what good would it do? People only made daring escapes in the movies.
Even though he'd just woken, he suddenly felt exhausted, like the very life force had been sucked out from him. His fingers curled gently around the edges of something hard—chair arms—and he let his head fall forward slightly. Everything seemed dark inside the burlap sack, like a world of shadows and ink, but John knew that light still existed, tickling just beyond his reach.
Where is Mary Morstan?
John had never felt such regret in his entire life. There had been a time in sixth grade when he'd accidentally spilt an entire bottle of purple tie-dye on a girl's new white dress and no amount of apologies had been able to squelch her tears; the next years, she hadn't even looked his way. Up until now, he'd thought that that was the worst it could get. Now, he knew that the world was a much crueler, more complex place, where a bit of split tie-dye would hardly stain the intricate fabric of reality. Regret stretched to bigger and better lengths; dye turned to blood, dresses to shaking hands, girls to boys with full black curls and startled blue eyes, careless hands to heavy books colliding with fragile flesh.
Click. Click. Click.
John's shoulders tensed, his fingers twitching around the chair's arms slightly. Footsteps. His regret fell away in place of apprehension mixed with a fair amount of pure terror; no matter how much he tried, John was not brave. Not like Sherlock.
"This isn't some pointless game, you know."
John would be lying if he said he didn't start at the words; they cut through the silence like shards of glass, piercing John's skin and making him wince with each inflection. Still, somehow, the voice managed to alleviate some of John's anxiety, like now that he knew of the killer's presence, at least nothing could surprise him.
Then, a cold hand settled on John's shoulder, and he stiffened. "I'm not like all those other serial killers you and your friend chase. I have a purpose to everything that I do. Just like you have a purpose here."
John bit his tongue and remained silent. There was a pause; John felt slight exhalations tickle the slight bit of bare skin between the sack and his shirt and suppressed a shiver. Then, the killer sighed and continued, "As it is, I also do not like wasted time." Then, with a tug, darkness gave way to pale light, stinging John's eyes for a moment before they adjusted. As he blinked away his temporary blindness, he felt a dread begin to build in his stomach. When he finally saw the face of the killer—of his kidnapper—whom would he see? Would he look like the kind of man capable of killing five people, or would he appear kind, without the sharp angles and harsh lines John imagined of a murderer?
Then, he slipped into John's view, a pale blur amassing into a man, and John felt something he never would have imagined: recognition.
"Well, John Watson?" the white king asked, folding his hands behind his back. "Do you understand?"
"Do you understand?" Sherlock asked, fixing Lestrade with a pressing glance. "It was all a trick. The killer claimed that he had Mary in order to get John, and then he left that note as a sort of mockery, rubbing our own stupidity in our faces!"
Lestrade had begun to pace a while back. All the other officers had left the building, but Sherlock and Lestrade still remained, Sherlock explaining the situation over and over to Lestrade and Lestrade puzzling through it every time and coming up with the same result that never seemed to satisfy him.
"But why does he need Mary?" Lestrade asked for the ninth time, moving his hands in coordination with his thoughts. "Why go through so much just to get the ex-girlfriend of the man whose attention he's captured all this time?"
The worst part was that Sherlock didn't know. He had tried everything, reviewing all his facts about John and even investigating the entire crime scene thoroughly. There hadn't been many times in his life when he hadn't had even the slightest inkling about something; in fact, only one other than this one. That had been years ago, though, and since then Sherlock had gotten much better, replacing emotions with logic, filling the empty space with facts and deductions and honing his skills almost habitually. Now, with John…
Sherlock gave Lestrade the answer he'd given every time. "It just doesn't make sense." Then, after some thought, he added, "He's not acting like any serial killer I've seen before. They all have patterns—some sort of distinguishing feature, like a way of killing or a type of victim. I thought that maybe the messages were his thing, or maybe the countdown, but that seems to be just a signature of sorts."
Lestrade glanced sideways at Sherlock. "Crime organization?"
Sherlock scoffed. "Likely. Crime is mostly organized lately, some of it a little too well for my liking."
"Odd, though." Lestrade folded his arms. "Crime bosses don't normally let their underlings go on personal vendettas."
"And that still doesn't explain the abrupt shift in attention from John to Mary." As soon as the words left Sherlock's mouth, an idea sparked, igniting the fires of discovery in his mind. "Except there wasn't."
"What?" Lestrade asked, confused.
"Getting our attention was only half of the plan," Sherlock explained excitedly, feeling the facts begin to roll off of his tongue smoothly. "Getting hers was the other half."
"What?" Lestrade repeated, his forehead creasing. "What the hell are you talking about?"
"Don't you see?" Sherlock exclaimed, backing up slightly and starting off towards the door. "It's always been about her!"
"Where are you going?" Lestrade called after Sherlock as he headed towards the door, his dark blue trench coat flapping against his ankles.
Sherlock didn't look back. "The question says it all, Lestrade! 'Where is Mary Morstan?'"
"What?" Lestrade shouted, but Sherlock was already gone.