Chapter 1: The Uncut Thread
Alec Hardy’s voice roared through the closed door of his office. Outside, a few heads turned. “Is this your idea of a joke??... I don’t care, we asked for reinforcements, not a bloody amateur detective!... What do you mean, he’s better? Have you no pride at all in your work?”
Ellie lifted her gaze from the computer screen at the sound of ‘bloody amateur detective’ and raised her eyebrows in surprise. The rest of the room quieted down in tension, soft sounds of typing on keyboards slowing and conversations interrupted. To hear DI Hardy shouting abuse at some poor soul on the phone was a common enough occurrence, but this was … something else. His southern Scottish lilt was more noticeable when he really lost his patience.
“Fine. Fine! Send him here, then! But don’t be surprised if I send him packing back to your precious London when he starts messing around!... I’ve heard enough about him to know, that’s how!... Yes, thank you, Sir!”
At the sound of a phone being tossed across the desk, Ellie stood up, crossed the room with quick strides, and opened the door to Hardy’s office.
“I can’t believe this, Miller! I just can’t believe this!” Alec’s expression shifted from anger to disbelief to something akin to silent rage, pursing his lips at Ellie.
“Who are they sending, sir? Sounded like someone you don’t care much about.” DS Ellie Miller knew better than to expect niceties from Alec even to their colleagues at London’s Metropolitan Police Service, but the viciousness thrown at his interlocutor had surprised her.
Alec closed his eyes and took a deep breath.
Sherlock burst out of his bedroom, phone in hand, a feral smile on his face. John recognised it as the ‘A case, John!’ smile, as he quickly dried his hands next to the kitchen sink.
“Right here, Sherlock, no need to shout. Case?”
“Lestrade called. He wants us to go to West Dorset and help the local police on a serial killer case. Serial murders, John!”
John mused briefly on how he should not be smiling at Sherlock’s enthusiasm for a serial killer, but he couldn’t help it. It’s been too long since they’ve had a challenging case, and Sherlock’s ennui was starting to grate on their nerves. John knew better than to fool himself thinking that he wasn’t as eager as Sherlock for some action.
“Ah, where in West Dorset?” He tried to not sound too enthusiastic.
“John,” Sherlock sighed dramatically but quirked an eyebrow up in amusement, “even your precarious powers of observation cannot have missed headlines about the murders in Broadchurch. Are you quite sure you don’t need those reading glasses after all, old man?”
“Quite. And you’re not getting any younger either, you cock.”
This gentle bantering was commonplace these days at 221B Baker Street. John revelled in this quiet domesticity, the two of them back under the same roof after Mary’s death.
“Afraid I only scan the local London news for juicy cases these days, Sherlock, bit busy otherwise.” John lifted his chin and gave what he hoped was a sunny smile to his friend. It was true enough – between his new job at the major trauma centre at St. Mary’s, guest lectures at Imperial College, casework and drafting the book, John did not have much idle time. He did remember reading about a murder in Broadchurch, but hadn’t that been a couple of years ago?
“It’s not the old murder of Danny Latimer. There’s been two more murders. Two boys, about the same age as Latimer, one found one month ago, the second one last week. There are similarities: death by asphyxiation, bodies abandoned under a cliff on the beach.”
“The local police force would not be contacting the Met if it were the same killer. A copycat?”
“Maybe. Not enough data. But they are out of their depth and need us. Pack a bag, John! We’re taking the next train to Weymouth.”
John hanged back the tea towel and moved towards Sherlock’s room, chuckling. ‘Pack a bag, John!’ always meant that John would pack two bags, and–
“Why on earth are you going into my bedroom? Go pack your bag, it’s no time to do the hoovering!”
“I was on my way to pack your bag first, you dick!”
“I have already packed, honestly John!”
John gaped for a couple of seconds before nodding at Sherlock, turning around and marching upstairs.
“Sherlock Holmes? Huh. I thought he was some sort of a consultant, not an actual detective at the Met.” Ellie looked puzzled at Alec.
“He’s not. He calls himself a ‘consulting detective’, and somehow a few of our colleagues at the Met think it’s okay to have him contaminating crime scenes and making them look like idiots.” Alec stood up from behind the desk and started pacing the small room, running fingers roughly through his hair. “All we needed was a, was a, was an expert opinion on what evidence we have collected! A fresh look! More forensics to help dig through the data! The town not to eat us alive! Again! Oh, the Chief Superintendent is going to love this too!”
“Well, we are used to being humiliated anyway. And since when do you care what Jenkinson thinks?” Ellie offered a tentative smile, hoping against hope that Alec would see the humour in the situation.
“What a comfort you are, Miller, just brilliant. Go get the mobile number of Holmes’ blogger boyfriend, you have to pick them up at Weymouth later today.”
“Me?? Why can’t we send a constable?”
“The fewer people know they are here, the bigger probability that we come out of this with some sort of dignity. You pick them up.”
“You’re coming with me. Sir.” Not a request. Ellie bit back a comment on not being his errand girl.
Alec looked at her for a long moment, and sighed, rage giving way to weariness. “All right. Just… find out when they’re arriving. And for god’s sake, find somewhere for them to stay that isn’t Becca Fisher’s gossip shack!”
“It’s nice, the Jurassic Coast. Or so I’ve heard. Never been, actually.” Aboard the South Western Railway service to Weymouth, John looked at the rolling landscape, bathed in late afternoon sunlight. An hour out of Waterloo and two to go until their destination, he tried to coax some meaningful conversation from Sherlock.
“Hmm.” Sherlock continued to scroll on his phone, at a speed that made John question if he could actually read anything on the screen.
“Last time we went out of London for a case was for Henry Knight.” The word Baskerville still left a bad taste in John’s mouth, and he carefully avoided it. “Not too far away, really, maybe an hour drive to Dartmoor? Not that I’d like to go back.”
Sherlock sighed and turned his head towards John. “Are you going to keep with this inane conversation all the way to Weymouth? Also, running about the globe after your wife was a bit more recent than Henry Knight and his imaginary monster hound.”
John clenched his jaw at the mention of their hunt for Mary and turned to Sherlock. “That wasn’t a case.” He hoped his voice had enough steel to steer the conversation off that particular subject.
Sherlock had the grace to look a bit ashamed and lowered his chin. “No, of course it wasn’t.”
John cleared his throat. “Anyway, you promised to tell me details about this case on our way there, so off you pop.”
Sherlock shifted a bit in his seat and took a deep breath. “Adam Nicholls, thirteen years old, found dead on the eleventh of July, on the beach where Danny Latimer was also found, in fact the very same spot,” John’s eyebrows shot up at that, “death by asphyxiation. Strangled, forensics and autopsy were crystal clear. Or so they say. One week ago, the eighth of August, Simon Porter, twelve years old, found dead. Same place, same MO, exactly one month after Nicholls death. Detective Inspector Alec Hardy, Dorset Police, recognised he’s obviously out of his depth and asked the Homicide Command for reinforcements. Lestrade’s team was asked to assist. He thought this was up our alley, so here we are.”
“Well, you do enjoy a good serial killer. But do try to remember that the victims are kids, yeah?”
While Sherlock had become more attuned to the idea that some people did, in fact, become emotional in cases involving children, John insisted on a bit of a top-up in the shape of kind reminders. Sherlock didn’t seem to mind – in fact, he had started responding positively to such remarks. John had noticed a slow but steady change since Mary’s death, to a more thoughtful and empathic Sherlock. “But,” he tried to shift his thoughts from anything connected to Mary, “not the same killer as Danny, then, otherwise they would not be having trouble finding the culprit.”
“There was an arrest at the time, Joe Miller. He was tried but was found not guilty. Miller has since left Dorset and has strong alibis for both murders. Theoretically, it could still be the same person responsible for all three murders. Lestrade was being dull and didn’t send me any more details, so we’ll have to go through the whole case with the local police force.”
“Miller? Oh. I got a call from a DS Miller, saying they will pick us up in Weymouth. Wonder if there’s any relationship. Anyway, they’ll drive us to Broadchurch. DS Miller said we could stay at her place; she has a guest room.”
Sherlock raised an eyebrow at that. “What’s wrong with a hotel? Surely the idyllic little town has some proper accommodation for summer tourists?”
“I don’t know. Maybe it’s all fully booked? I tried to say we didn’t want to impose, but DS Miller was very adamant that we would stay with her; she said she lives in a quiet neighbourhood.” John paused at this, and added thoughtfully, “Hmm… they don’t want us to stay in town, do they?”
Sherlock gave a proud smile to John. “Excellent, John. Which means …”
“… that they’re not too happy that we’re coming. Small town, outsiders will be noticed, and you are somewhat famous, so …”
“Somewhat famous. Really, John. Maybe I should make that my middle name.”
“William Sherlock Somewhat Famous Scott Holmes. It could work.” John grinned at Sherlock, hoping he had not gone too far.
Sherlock seemed unfazed. “Probably they’re unhappy that they need help to solve the case, possibly they were belligerent at the prospect of getting Sherlock Holmes, consulting detective, instead of a ‘proper detective’,” John could hear the air quote marks, “likely they will nevertheless provide us full access to evidence and crime scenes but restrict interviews, so we get bored and go back to London as soon as possible. Good thing I’ll solve this quickly, for all parties involved.”
John smirked at that and turned to look again at the passing landscape.
Sherlock and John strode towards the small main hall of Weymouth Railway Station. Both men made eye contact with a rather irritated man, arms akimbo in an ill-fitting suit and a loose-knotted tie, and a woman in smart jeans, blazer jacket and a contrasting, sunny disposition.
Ellie stepped forward and stretched her hand. “Dr Watson, Mr Holmes. Welcome to Dorset. I’m Detective Sergeant Ellie Miller, and this is Detective Inspector Alec Hardy.” John took her hand in a firm handshake and returned the toothy grin, while Sherlock offered his hand to Alec. “Please, call me Sherlock.”
Alec didn’t break his position. Sherlock slowly withdrew his stretched hand, clasped both hands behind his back instead and straightened himself, in what John usually called the ‘armour on’ stance. Alec Hardy stared frostily at Sherlock and cut short further pleasantries.
“Let me be very clear on this. You are here because the bampots at the Met think it’s acceptable to send an amateur detective instead of a real one. Only the fact that we are short-staffed has me accepting this solution. This is not London, and not one of your blog cases, so you will comply with any instructions you are given and observe the proper chain of command.”
An uncomfortable silence settled after Alec’s outburst. Sherlock’s expression was carefully blank, but with a slight rise of his chin he turned a piercing look towards Alec. John groaned and rubbed his face in exasperation, anticipating Sherlock’s torrent of deductions:
“You became a Detective Inspector in Broadchurch after the Sandbrook debacle because the Chief Superintendent is a friend of yours – a position that would otherwise have gone to DS Miller, who resented you at first for having been shunned for the position. You have recently tried to rescue your dwindling marriage, but the effort ended up instead in divorce, the better outcome really since your marriage has been over for years – possibly because she cheated on you, likely because her cheating led to evidence disappearing in the Sandbrook case. You have a distant relationship with your daughter because she thinks you are never there for her, worsened by your move to Broadchurch and now the divorce. You have a heart condition, likely congenital but you are convinced that stress from the Sandbrook case caused it, quite wrong I’m afraid, but it’s such a common metaphor, broken heart and all that, people find explanations in strange things, sentiment, you see.”
Alec opened his mouth to protest, but Sherlock went relentlessly on: “You’ve tried a few dates through online dating sites, although you are more looking for company for an evening than an extended sexual relationship, since you are quite aware that your lifestyle scares away most of the female population. Your bathroom light has been broken for at least three days, judging by the uneven trimming of your beard on the left side close to the ear, and you’re thinking of moving somewhere not as close to the shore, because your house is prone to flooding.” Alec balled his fists, but Sherlock continued, “How does an amateur detective know that? Your shoes have been thoroughly wet twice with lightly oil-polluted salt water, typical for areas with recreational boats. Once could have been an accident, but twice? You keep your shoes next to the door, so of course they will quickly get soaked. If it were water from the beach, the oil stains would not be there, and since those are your best shoes, you have tried to rescue them,” Alec flicked his murderous look down to his shoes and back up, and Sherlock concluded in a clipped tone, “and this I know because, unlike your procedures and chains of command, I do not merely see, I also observe.”
John closed his eyes in defeat and took a deep breath. Ellie shuffled her feet and cleared her throat. “What Detective Inspector Hardy was trying to say is that we are very happy to have you coming all the way from London to help us. A fresh perspective may shed some light into this case.” Before Alec could protest, Ellie continued quickly, “If you follow me, I parked my car just outside; we’ll drive directly to Broadchurch. Unless you need to grab a bite or anything else before?”, she added pleasantly.
John opened his eyes and stuttered. “Ah, thanks, Sergeant Miller, we had something to eat on the way here, we’re good.”
Alec and Sherlock measured each other silently.
“Please, call me Ellie.” “Only if you call me John.” Ellie and John grinned at each other and stepped out. Alec and Sherlock rolled their eyes at this exchange and followed.
“Um, it’s very kind of you to offer us your guest room, Ellie, but really, we could stay at a hotel.” John and Ellie chatted while Sherlock had thrown himself on one of the two beds, opened his laptop and promptly forgotten about his surroundings.
“It’s no problem at all. Only we thought you’d be more comfortable here …”
“No.” Sherlock interrupted, not as disconnected as it appeared. “You don’t want the town to know we are here – bringing in Sherlock Holmes to investigate serial murders because the local police force is once again outwitted.”
“Sherlock.” John threw him a dirty look.
“… although the comfort of a homey bed is more appealing than a potentially bed-bug infested commercial establishment.” Sherlock glanced at John to assess his reaction on how polite this comment was. John felt a rush of fondness mixed with amusement at Sherlock’s newest attempt to be a bit more empathic and smirked at him.
“You’re not wrong, Mr. Holmes. Sherlock.” Ellie gave him a conciliatory smile. “We’re not ashamed to have you here. But this town has gone through a lot, and these murders … are digging up a lot of old history that we would all prefer to have left in the past. There’s … similarities between these new crimes and Danny’s death.” Ellie flicked her gaze to the floor, and up again to John. “Anyway. We’ll talk details tomorrow. I’m sorry that it’s two separate beds, but we could arrange them differently, of course …”
“No worries, Ellie,” John interrupted, “we’re not …” John noticed Sherlock slowing down his typing. “… we’re not picky, it’s hopefully just a few nights anyway.”
“Just the one, likely.” Sherlock picked up the pace in the typing.
“Right, then. See you boys tomorrow for breakfast!”, Ellie chirped, stepping out of the room.
They heard her steps down the staircase.
“This was their bedroom.” Sherlock spoke softly, still typing.
“Hers and Joe Miller’s. She probably didn’t want to sleep in the same bedroom after her husband was arrested for murdering the boy.”
“Christ. Joe Miller was her husband?!”
“Honestly, John,” Sherlock sighed with what he probably considered was an adequate dose of patience, “how hard a deduction is that? Look around you and observe. The whole house is littered in photos, souvenirs and assorted trinkets, except this bedroom, which is clinically devoid of anything personal. This room was painted recently, although not this year, and by amateur hands, probably by Miller herself, likely with the help of her older son. Some sort of bonding, fresh start and whatnot. Furniture is second-hand, worn but mismatched, and not been here long enough to imprint the floor. And while there are plenty of photos with DS Miller and her children, there is not a single one with their father.”
“Oh.” It was all quite obvious, when Sherlock laid down facts like that. “Can’t blame her, really, tough to find out your spouse is a murderer. Well, alleged murderer in this case.” John knew a thing or two about the subject.
Sherlock gave him a long look. “Oh, he was the murderer all right. The case was botched in court, reasonable doubt and all that. Idiots.”
John carefully pushed away memories of Sherlock dying of a gunshot wound inflicted by his own wife, and smirked. “Even the bed was changed to two separate ones. Quite symbolic.”
“Don’t be daft, it is simply more practical when she has family visiting over. Grandparents, most probably.” Sherlock slowed his typing to a distracted rhythm and then stopped altogether. He kept his eyes on the screen but didn’t seem to be reading anything.
“Something on your mind?”
“John. You surprise me constantly.”
John furrowed his brow in bemusement at Sherlock but waited patiently for him to continue. Sherlock worried the edge of the bed cover, avoiding looking John in the eye. “She thought we were a couple, and you did not jump to vehemently defend your heterosexuality.”
“Everybody always thinks we’re a couple, Sherlock, what else is new?” John tried to keep his tone light.
“You were flirting earlier. Why compromise your chances with a potential mating partner?”
John started feeling somewhat uneasy at the turn of the conversation. “A potential … Jesus, Sherlock. Well, yeah, I guess I … well, it doesn’t matter what people think. And I’m not interested in her, Christ, we just met! Aren’t you always going on how I should focus when we’re on a case? Anyway,” he rushed to pick up his pyjamas and toothbrush, “I’m not interested in … I’m not interested. I’m going to get ready for bed.” John slipped quickly out of the bedroom.
Sherlock returned his attention to the abandoned laptop and resumed typing.
“Good morning, everyone.”
Sunlight bathed the main room at Broadchurch’s police department headquarters. Alec stood in front of his co-workers, a curbed team due to the summer Saturday, and pointedly ignored the surprised faces at the presence of Sherlock and John next to him. “Constable Vickers, any update?”
“Uh, yes sir,” the young DC, Laura Vickers, straightened her back, “both suits are now confirmed to match a particular wool blend used in suits sold by Next. We’re going through their records to find out whether they were purchased online or in a store. It’s quite a bit to go through, but I’m confident we’ll have done it by the end of the day.”
“Excellent, thank you!” Alec looked genuinely pleased at this new piece of information. Everything was treacle slow in the summer: fibre analyses from the first victim’s suit had taken almost two weeks, and then started the painstaking process of finding the right vendors. Alec continued addressing the room. “Hopefully, we’ll get a solid lead there. As you know, our leads on the murders of Adam Nicholls and Simon Porter are otherwise running dry, and it doesn’t help that we are so understaffed. Porter’s murder attracted unwanted attention from the national media. We are now dealing with a serial killer, and everybody is getting restless. We asked for additional resources from the Homicide and Serious Crime Command in London. They, uh, sent us … these two gentlemen.” Alec shuffled his feet but resumed haughtily. “You have probably heard of Mr Sherlock Holmes and Dr John Watson. They are here as, er, consultants, to examine the case.” Alec shifted again and continued in a less fluid tone, “They are to have access to, uh, evidence. Any database queries have to be approved by me or DS Miller.” Alec threw an annoyed glance at Sherlock. “Feel otherwise free to answer questions that they might have for you.” Deep breath. “Detective Sergeant Miller, anything to add?”
“Ah, only that we received the logs for Simon’s mobile phone yesterday afternoon.”
“Bloody finally. All right everybody, back to work.”
Alec turned to Sherlock, John and Ellie and resumed in a lower voice, “We have a dedicated room for this case. Follow me.”
“Adam’s body was found here,” Ellie taps a finger on the map of the coast off Broadchurch, “last month. Cause of death was asphyxiation; there were clear marks on his throat and around nose and mouth.” She took out photos from a folder and spread them methodically on the table. “Here’s a close-up of the injuries. The size of the bruises suggests this was done by a well-built male. Although there are similarities to Danny’s death – similar ages, physical appearance – we are quite sure it’s not the same perpetrator.”
They had moved to a small room which felt quickly claustrophobic with four adults in. Stacks of manila folders and diverse papers piled up on a square table under the window opposite to the door. A pinboard covered the left wall with photos and more papers tacked on it; the wall on the right hand side had a whiteboard with a hand-written timeline and diverse notes in different colours.
John observed Ellie carefully, but if the mention of Danny’s murderer was affecting her somehow, she did not let show.
Sherlock picked up a photo and frowned at it.
Ellie proceeded. “Simon’s body was found more or less on the same location…”
“What do you mean, ‘more or less’? Was it exactly the same location or not? Details, please.” Sherlock interrupted abruptly.
Ellie looked unfazed at Sherlock’s interruption. “Not exactly the same location. About half a metre to the right of the first location, if you’re facing the sea. And as you can see here,” she slid a couple of photos towards Sherlock, “they were both placed perpendicular to the coastline. Simon presented the same type of injuries to the face and neck.”
“Any traces of DNA evidence? Were the boys, um …” John left the rest of the question unaired.
Alec caught quickly his meaning. “There were no traces of any other sort of violence on the bodies. And no foreign DNA anywhere.”
John frowned at a couple of photos. “Were they both wearing school uniforms? ... They were in very strange positions. Rigor mortis doesn’t do this to a body.” Adam’s body was on its side, roughly shaped as an S. Simon’s body was also placed on his side, but the body was laid straight with arms stretched out at a right angle, as if he was about to grab something. “Someone or something must have held Simon in this position until rigor mortis settled in.” John shuddered a bit at the thought of someone holding the dead body of a young boy for hours to make some sort of … what, statement?
Sherlock picked up a close-up photo of Simon, frowned at that one too, and slowly turned away from his companions, eyes still pinned to the photos.
“We know all that,” Alec cut in, “and I can quickly add that the bodies were placed at the beach after being … shaped like that. The sand was too little disturbed for having had someone shuffling a body about. Likely, the bodies were disposed of the same way as Danny’s – a small boat that anchored briefly on the beach and that may have been scuttled by now.”
“It has not.” Sherlock spoke quietly but with an icy certainty that sent a shiver down John’s spine. “They will kill again, so the boat is still useful.”
“Yes, well, Mr Consulting Detective, they won’t because according to your pal Lestrade you are ‘better’,” even Alec’s air quotes were dripping with sarcasm, “and since you are some sort of magician, we will catch the killer before the end of the day, no?” Alec jutted out his chin and stared firmly at the back of Sherlock’s head. Ellie lifted a placating look at John.
John didn’t notice any of this, though. The tone in Sherlock’s voice made him also stare at the dark mop of curls. “Sherlock? What do you mean by that?”
Sherlock lowered his hands, still clutching at the photos, and turned slowly to Alec, staring him down with a piercing look. “Detective Inspector. While I acknowledge that my presence here irks you to no end, the fact is that you are even more out of your depth than what I first suspected.” Alec was about to protest, but Sherlock continued. “The bruises on the victims’ faces and throat have a very particular pattern. Both Dr Watson and myself have come across this signature.” Sherlock glanced at John, who gaped at him with incredulity, and proceeded. “Oscar Dzundza, also known as ‘The Golem’, is a seven-foot tall contract assassin who kills his victims by asphyxiating them with his bare hands.”
John groaned. The Golem had crossed their paths years ago, when Moriarty started playing games with Sherlock. Both Sherlock and John had felt how physically strong the giant man was. He had escaped then, returning to the shadows of the underworld.
Ellie intervened. “This is a small, close-knit community, I think we would have heard about a newcomer that is seven-foot tall.”
“Indeed, Sergeant Miller. But I did not say Dzundza was the perpetrator – merely that his particular technique was employed here. Definitely by someone else, though.” Sherlock inhaled sharply. “I need to see the place where the bodies were found.”
Alec rolled his eyes. “Ah, I see, there’s a school where they all go to learn murder techniques, and the killer and this Dzundza guy were in the same class. That’s just great.”
“Don’t be absurd. It’s not a school, it’s a training network, obviously. Whether Dzundza learned his technique from this man or if it was the other way around is at this point not interesting. What is important is that I would recognise the pattern.”
Alec and Ellie stared in confusion at Sherlock. John leaned back on the nearest wall and took a deep breath. An oppressive unease unfurled within while one dark word rattled around in his brain.
Chapter 2: Ghosts in the Sand
I'm humbled at the positive reception to this story - thank you! And many thanks to hotshoeagain for the meticulous beta'ing!
The morning summer sun gave way to pewter grey afternoon clouds with a distant promise of rain.
Ellie parked the car. “Here we are. It’s a short walk down to the beach.”
She led the way, and the three men followed closely in silence to the cordoned-off scene. “We had a tent covering the exact location of the second body, but we had to start cleaning up the scene yesterday. People want their beach back.” She shrugged at this. “Our SOCO, Brian, has collected all relevant evidence. We were expecting, ah, forensic specialists from the Met, so there was no point keeping everything sterile when that turned out to not be the case. They will remove the rest later today when we’re gone.”
Sherlock turned to Ellie. “The Met did send forensic specialists.” Alec lifted the white-and-blue tape, allowing his companions to pass under it. Sherlock kneeled next to the marked position where Simon Porter’s body had been found, looking at this and that. After a few minutes, he stood up, brushing sand off his trousers, and stepped away while doing a slow three hundred and sixty degree survey of his surroundings. “Is it possible to go on the cliff?”
“It is, but we can’t get too close to the edge; the ground is not stable.” Alec responded. “The beach is sometimes closed to the public, in particular after heavy rains, due to the risk of landslide.” He turned around and motioned the rest of the group to follow him.
A path ran along the soft round hill, which stopped abruptly at the beach cliff. They clambered up the hill to the top. Ellie explained that there was a golf course just ahead, so they’d better not walk further along.
Sherlock stepped absent-mindedly closer to the edge.
John’s voice was low and firm, but with a touch of not-quite-panic to it.
“I need to get a bit closer, John. Survey the scene from above.”
“You really don’t,” John growled. Ellie and Alec watched the exchange with interest.
“Dr Watson is right; if you need aerial photos or something, we can provide them. The Dorset police have a drone for such purposes,” explained Alec.
Sherlock turned briskly back but softened his stance at John’s pained look and clenching left fist. “Of course. Well, we might as well get back, nothing new to gather here.”
Alec started pacing furiously towards the path, mumbling about the pointlessness of climbing all the way up ‘just to see the view’, and Ellie rushed after him. Lagging a few steps behind, Sherlock gently held John’s arm.
“I’m sorry, John. I did not mean to unnerve you.”
“I can see that it’s really not, and I am sorry.” Sherlock made John stop and look at him. John sighed.
“Sherlock … Look, I can’t avoid having some sort of Pavlovian response to situations like that. I know you’re not going to throw yourself off every tall structure in existence.” John smiled sadly. He really didn’t want to have this conversation right now, and there was another even less pleasant to be had. “Do you think it’s him? Moriarty?”
“Moriarty is dead.” Sherlock let go of John’s arm and walked slowly towards the path. John followed. “I am sure of it. He blew his brains out right in front of me, and Mycroft’s people picked up the body from the rooftop. One hundred percent positive ID on that. But his web might not be totally gone, despite our best efforts.”
John’s mind drifted to the ‘efforts’ Sherlock was alluding to. During those weeks when they hunted for the woman known to them as Mary Morstan (John really did not want to think of her as Mary Watson), Sherlock opened up little by little about his activities while he had been dead to the rest of the world. Thread by thread, he had snipped Moriarty’s web: an undercover job here, unearthing evidence there … and darker activities, things Sherlock found necessary to protect his friends’ lives back in London. Still, a contract assassin who once worked for Moriarty got close to John – whether Mary had genuinely cared for John once or if she had been a honey trap was something that John did not know. Plus, the unsettling broadcast, supposedly from a not-dead Moriarty that brought Sherlock back from the brink of his final exile, meant that not all threads were cut.
“I know what you are thinking, John.”
“Of course you do.”
“We’ve been through this. The broadcast was a hoax. I strongly suspect Mycroft himself had a hand in that, although he will never admit to it. Sentiment.” John grinned at this – he knew that if roles were reversed, Sherlock Holmes would do anything to protect his brother’s life.
“But Mary might not have been the final thread.” A few weeks after the broadcast, Mary gave birth to a girl. Any joy that John would have taken from this died quickly when the baby’s blood was typed – to a type which John Watson could not have fathered. A tense week of paternity tests, burdensome conversations, and tearful confessions later, Mary simply vanished. A broken John decided to give the little girl away to the biological father. Yet another lie in a marriage where both sides concealed their true selves in one way or another.
The following weeks had seen Sherlock and John hunting down Mary before she could build her own criminal empire from the ashes of Moriarty’s network. The final showdown was as violent as it was clichéd: they finally caught her in an abandoned warehouse on the outskirts of Bucharest, and when she levelled her gun once more towards Sherlock, John was there with a combat knife in his left hand, and a ribcage full of resentment.
That thread had been finally cut.
“Are we sure it’s Dzundza’s, er, technique?” John tried to shake off the path his thoughts had started to take.
“You saw the injuries yourself. Clear trademark. Yes, there are not infinite ways of asphyxiating a victim, but balance of probability tips very heavily on this being somehow related to Dzundza. The real question is another.”
They were nearing the end of the path where Ellie and Alec had reached the car. From this distance, John could clearly see that Alec was agitated and Ellie placating him, but couldn’t quite register the exchanged words. As they approached, Sherlock spoke again.
“Hm, not quite. ‘Why’ is obvious. It’s a message.”
John shot an alarmed look at Sherlock but commented no further as they reached the car. Ellie looked at the three men.
“Right, we’re going to get a bite and go over any thoughts you gentlemen might have so far.”
“Were the boys abducted out of school? They were wearing uniforms, right?” John held a Styrofoam box and nibbled thoughtfully on his fish and chips.
“Uh, no, they were regular suits. It’s summer anyway, no school, although some schools around here have summer activities.” Ellie replied, taking a cheesy chip from her own box.
They had walked to the pier, where tourists and locals wandered about or sat on wooden benches. John and Ellie had refused to continue without something in their stomachs, so a stop at one of the harbour’s food huts was in order. Sherlock’s ‘I don’t eat when I’m on a case’ raised Alec’s and Ellie’s eyebrows, while John simply rolled his eyes. Alec clutched a cup of coffee, too wired up to be able to eat anything. The three of them sat on a bench while Sherlock paced restlessly.
“Sure you don’t want a cheesy chip?” Ellie offered Alec.
“I’m good.” Alec cleared his throat. “The boys disappeared from their houses at night. There’s no signs of forced entry, so they were lured out or left otherwise without their parents’ consent. No obvious signs of struggle around their houses. They were wearing suits when they were found, but the suits did not belong to them. Adam’s parents could ascertain that a hoodie, jeans and trainers were missing, and Simon’s parents think he took a sweatshirt, and jeans and trainers too. It can get chilly at night here, but not too cold this time of the year, so no jackets.”
“The kids were dressed up in suits, murdered, arranged in strange random positions and left on the beach? Christ, what kind of maniac are we dealing with here?” John shook his head sadly.
“Are you all daft?” Sherlock abruptly stopped his pacing and turned to his companions. “They are not random positions. They are letters. Your feeble minds clearly could identify the first victim’s body as an S, but completely forgot about the half H of the second body. Child’s play, quite literally.”
“The half H… oh!” Ellie could see it now. Yes, child’s play – the nursery game of making letters with your body, some letters requiring two children. An H, formed by two standing people facing each other, stretching out their arms and holding their hands. “But where’s the other half? Why didn’t they murder two boys to make the H?”
“Because, Detective Sergeant,” Sherlock’s voice was devoid of emotion, but his posture was tense, “someone went through a lot of trouble to make sure I would be interested in what otherwise would be a dull series of murders by a local child molester. This is anything but.”
John threw a pointed look at Sherlock at ‘dull series of murders’ but was promptly ignored. Sherlock continued, “Danny Latimer’s death is unrelated, but Adam Nicholls and Simon Porter were carefully chosen to resemble Latimer’s murder at first. Why, though? Perhaps a cruel joke, or tactics to destabilize the public, make your job difficult.” He paused. “Nicholls and Porter have more in common with someone else than with Latimer.”
At this, Alec dropped his annoyed countenance, rose slowly from the bench, threw his coffee cup in a bin, and took a good look at Sherlock.
“Both kids had dark curly hair, athletic but lanky build, light blue eyes. Danny had the same physical traits, similar age, but we know it’s not, ah, Joe Miller committing these murders now, so we suspected a copycat. But these kids are dressed in suits, shoes and all.” Alex inhaled sharply. “Holmes, is the killer spelling your name on our beaches?”
“Well, hopefully it’s only my initials, so only one murder to go.”
John blanched visibly at this. “Sherlock!”
Sherlock glanced at John and cleared his throat. “… which we will naturally try to avoid.”
John pondered uneasily how this now looked like a sick, elaborate plot to attract Sherlock’s attention. “So … it’s a trap of sorts. Made into a game that would interest you because it resembles something Moriarty would do. To get you out of London.”
“It is a game, and not one I’m willing to play.”
Sherlock stared out at the waves. A dark cloud floated a few kilometres off over the sea, turning the waters stony blue. The wind picked up.
“I really want this to be a load of crock, because frankly it’s a wee bit too theatrical.” Alec tilted his head and continued to stare at Sherlock. “Okay. So, there is a potential victim out there, with a particular physical profile. But we need to narrow it down. There must be dozens, if not hundreds of kids fitting the profile in the area.”
“But what drove Simon and Adam out of their houses? If we know how they were lured out, we could start there,” offered Ellie. “We’ve gone through their mobile records and e-mails, no suspicious calls or messages as far as we could judge.”
Sherlock bit back a snort. “I’ll need to see those myself. Have the bodies been buried?”
“Adam’s funeral was last week, Simon is still in the mortuary, funeral is scheduled for Monday. Do you want to have a look at the body?”
“I’d rather have John perform the examination while I go through electronic records at the station.”
John looked up in surprise. It was highly unusual that Sherlock would pass an opportunity to examine a body – but maybe it made sense to split tasks at this point. He wasn’t too happy at the perspective of leaving Sherlock out of his sight, in case there was a murderer lurking. “Uh, anything in particular I should look for, Sherlock?”
“You know my methods, John. I suspect that we might not learn much more, but we must leave no loose ends.”
“Very well,” chirped Ellie while standing up, “I’ll drive John to the mortuary after I drop you two boys back at the station. You could use a little bonding time.” She flashed her pearly whites at the three men, turned around, tossed her empty Styrofoam box in the nearest bin, and walked away with steady steps.
Alec and Sherlock started doing protesting sounds simultaneously but were interrupted by John’s ‘What an excellent idea, Ellie, sounds like a perfect plan!’ while he followed her swiftly, tossing his box in the same bin.
Ellie looked back over her shoulder and winked at a smiling John, a seething Alec, and a brooding Sherlock, without missing a step.
Oliver ‘Olly’ Stevens sat alone at the corner café up on the sunny esplanade, eating his lunch salad, and observed the small group.
“Well, well, look what the tide brought in,” he murmured to himself, hurriedly unlocking his mobile and tapping on the Twitter app.
“If I kill him, it will technically be self-defence.”
Alec, Sherlock and Ellie exited the car outside the police station. The prospect of spending time with Sherlock Holmes without having Ellie or John as buffers had not done wonders for Alec’s mood.
“I am sure you will get along just fine,” replied Ellie with mock cheerfulness. “John, I’ll be right back with the pathology reports.”
John nodded. Without a further word, Alec turned around and strode up the staircase to the station. Sherlock followed silently, looking disinterested. Ellie ran lightly to catch up with Alec.
“What’s really bothering you is the possibility that he might be right.”
“He’s the type that makes everything about him. Borderline narcissistic. He probably spends two hours arranging those curls every morning!”
Ellie looked disapprovingly but with a hint of amusement at Alec. “While you bury yourself in work and don’t even change the lamp in your bathroom. Look, we need all the help we can get. Stop envying his curls and try to not be such a knob the whole time?”
Alec gaped at her, but Ellie marched into the building without waiting for a reply.
Ellie strolled back to the car a few minutes later, holding a couple of folders.
“Aw, they’re going to be mates by the end of the day, I am sure.” Ellie drawled in irony, making John snort in amusement. Ellie sat behind the wheel, handing the folders to John. They left the parking spot, driving towards A35.
“Yeah, well sorry about the, um … attitude,” John replied with a more serious tone. “He doesn’t always realise that he’s being incredibly rude. A bit low on social skills, but he does care about those close to him.”
“Those like yourself, I suppose, otherwise you wouldn’t be partners.” Ellie remarked.
John took a moment and added, “Yes, we are very close. Each other’s best friend, really. We’ve been through a lot together.”
Ellie didn’t take her eyes off the road. “May I ask if that’s all you are? Only there’s rumours about you two. I know it’s none of my business, but you know, professional curiosity and all that.”
John hesitated. What were they, indeed? Those weeks chasing Mary had them travelling under false identities and sharing living quarters, from dingy hostels to posh hotel rooms. It was undeniable that the forced intimacy had torn down whichever personal space barriers had been erected between the two men while they had lived apart. But whatever John sensed had started to bloom between him and Sherlock didn’t really develop much after his return to Baker Street. John feared doing a deeper examination on the nature of their friendship, mostly because the answers were always the same, and always not quite … what he thought they should be.
Ellie was suddenly uncomfortable and shifted in her seat. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have asked; forget about it. It was indelicate of me.”
“Ah, no, it’s ok, I’m just. Trying to find the proper description, that’s all.” John took a deep breath, picking absently at a corner of a folder on his lap. “It’s quite frequent that people think that we are a couple in the, in the romantic sense, right? And I used to reply that I wasn’t gay, and that was that. Then he disappeared, we all thought he was dead, I got married to a woman, Mary, so it was all in the past, really.” Ellie motioned him to go on. “When he came back, I was, um … angry to have been deceived, but we eventually found each other again.” He paused. There were the in-betweens that were best left unsaid. “After my wife died, he’s been … well, he’s been exceptionally supportive. We, um … we fit well together, we understand each other, we have each other’s back. I suppose one could describe us as a couple, because we do share almost every aspect of our lives, just not … You know.”
“Yeah. So … it’s complicated.”
“Is that your relationship status on Facebook?” Ellie tried to lighten up the atmosphere in the car.
John saw an opening to deflect and ask Ellie what had been troubling him since the previous night. “Is that yours?”
Ellie glanced quickly at John, and her smile faded. “Ah, no, I’m firmly divorced.” She cleared her throat. “You’re wondering why I kept the name.”
“Am I that transparent?”
She smiled again. “Well, I am a detective, and not a shabby one at that.” John grinned, but Ellie took a more serious tone. “When Joe was acquitted, he left Broadchurch and changed his name. But that was not the main reason why I kept it. The main reason was that Miller had become my professional identity, this is how colleagues treat me, it was with the name Miller that I made a career in the police force. So, I took it and made it my own, and after all Joe took away from me, from us … he wasn’t going to take away my identity as well.” Ellie’s voice was strained, and she gripped the wheel a bit tighter, but kept her calm. “I am Ellie Miller, and he can be whatever the hell he is, because he’s certainly not the man I married.”
John’s grin had faded at this explanation, knowing too well what she meant. “I’m sorry you and your kids had to go through all that; it can’t have been easy.”
“It was hell. It’s not okay. It will never be okay. But it is what it is.”
John nodded in agreement and turned his attention to the folders on his lap. They both kept silent for the remainder of the trip.
“You said it sounded too theatrical. You are not wrong.”
Sherlock had followed Alec quietly into the police building and thrown himself into skimming through endless lists and logs. After a frustrating hour, he was pacing the case room in his shirtsleeves when Alec came in and was greeted by what sounded almost like a compliment.
“Well, apparently someone is selecting boys to murder and dress up to make them look like you. So, we are dealing with an obsessive person with a penchant for drama. Obsessed with you. Got a lot of fans?” Alec walked around the table and looked down at the logs. “You might be surprised, but we are not total idiots here, and have gone through all of this with a fine-tooth comb. So, what are you looking for?”
“A reason why there is absolutely no logged activity for the phones of two teenage boys the nights they died. No contact with phone towers, no data usage, nothing.”
“We think they turned their mobiles off before leaving their houses. Not possible to confirm since the mobiles have not been found.”
Sherlock stopped his pacing and frowned at Alec. “Two teenaged boys leave their houses in the middle of the night, with no signs of struggle or foul play, and they turn their mobiles off? Why would they do that? Why not just put them on vibrate if they wanted to remain unseen and unheard? Teenagers practically live with mobiles in their hands. No, Inspector, they were going to meet someone, and for that they needed to have their mobiles on, lest their meeting be called off or moved to a new location at the last minute.”
Alec considered this. “It’s an interesting hypothesis, but I don’t see why they wouldn’t turn their mobiles off exactly because they wanted to remain undetected.”
“Because they didn’t before.” Sherlock’s frown smoothed as the pieces fell into place in his head, and he bolted to the records on the table. “Look, here, here, and here, and there’s probably more if we look further back.” He grabbed a pen and quickly marked three dates on one of the papers. “Porter used his mobile in the middle of the night on these three separate dates.”
“Quite a bit past his bedtime, but who can control teenagers these days? Could be sneaking out for a number of reasons.”
“Exactly!” Sherlock’s eyes gleamed while retrieving another paper and proceeding to circle dates. “And Nicholls, he also used his phone well into the witching hour. And at least two of those occasions …” he continued almost manically.
Alec’s eyes widened while he finished Sherlock’s sentence. “… coincide with Simon’s. Bloody hell.”
Someone rapped at the door. “Sir? You should see this.” DC Laura Vickers stepped into the room and handed her phone to Alec. “That’s the Broadchurch Echo’s Twitter feed. I’m afraid discretion is off the table.”
Alec scrunched up his face after a quick survey of the screen told him Sherlock Holmes was no longer incognito in town. “Ah, indeed. Ellie’s delightful nephew is playing journo again.”
Laura took her phone back, and added “On a better note, it seems that particular model of suit was not a popular one, so we have a list of all that were sold in the past 12 months. And not too many in the summer months – wrong time of the year to wear a heavy wool blend.”
Alec brightened at this piece of information. “Excellent, Vickers, excellent! We need exhaustive lists on who purchased those suits; leave no stone unturned. Give me names.”
“Yes, sir.” Laura beamed at the praise and excused herself from their presence.
As Sherlock was growing impatient at this exchange, his phone beeped with a new message. His eyes narrowed at the contents. “Yes, yes, marvellous, now leave, I need to think.” Sherlock threw himself onto a chair, closed his eyes, and steepled his fingers under his chin.
Alec scowled at him, sighed loudly, and left the room.
Ellie and John drove into Dorchester, heading towards Dorset County Hospital. “The mortuary is closed on weekends, but we have keys, and the manager knows we’re coming. I informed the forensics pathologist, too.” Ellie parked the car near the north entrance, and they strode into level 1 on the North Wing.
“There’s plans to close this mortuary, meaning we’d have only one for the whole of Dorset, in Bournemouth. Bloody stupid, if you ask me.” Ellie unlocked the door to the mortuary, switched on the lights, and entered with John in tow. The room was flooded in a frosty white light from fluorescent lamps and under-cabinet lighting.
“That’s quite a bit far away for people living in West Dorset,” John remarked. “I suppose the NHS tries to cut costs wherever they can.”
“Yeah, uh, they might keep some service here for the hospital itself, but everything else would be moved to East Dorset.” Ellie moved to the cold chamber containing the body of Simon Porter. “Here he is.”
“Right, I’ll grab some gloves.” John looked around and found what he was looking for.
They spent some time observing the body, with John asking this and that from the pathology reports. Pathology was not his field, but having been often at Barts observing Molly Hooper working gave him some confidence on things to look for. Time on the battlefield and with Sherlock’s sometimes gruelling cases had desensitised John to most gore and death, but it was still hard to see a dead child on a slab.
In particular, one with short dark curls and sea-green eyes.
John shook off old memories of similar dead-staring eyes from a bloody pavement and focused on the task at hand. Long minutes passed, with Ellie answering one question or another about the case.
“Well,” he finally huffed in frustration, “far from me to have the standing to say this, but your professionals were as thorough as they could be. I don’t really know why Sherlock thought it would be a good idea to send me here. Looking at the corpses of young murdered boys isn’t really high on my priority list for a relaxing Saturday afternoon.”
“It was worth a try. Maybe go through the pathology reports in more detail? There’s a restaurant on level 2. I could have some coffee.”
They were seated by a small table a few minutes later, cups of coffee steaming in their hands.
“Um, we’re missing Simon’s toxicological report?”
Ellie sighed. “Yes, I’m afraid that things have been a bit slow, what with being summer. There’s only one qualified forensic pathologist on duty these weeks for the whole of Dorset to do full analyses on suspicious deaths. We’ve had to send everything to London for analysis to speed up things, but we’re still waiting for the full report.” She quirked up a smile. “This is not London, John. Things don’t get done overnight.”
John nodded. “Quite a bit of caffeine in Adam’s tox screen, was wondering if it was the same with Simon.”
Ellie tapped a finger on another paper. “Yes, we checked stomach contents; there were small amounts of some energy drink.”
John hummed thoughtfully. A teenager slipping out of their house in the middle of the night would need some stimulant to keep alert, and energy drinks were more popular choices than coffee. Glucose levels were consistent with ingestion of sweetened drinks. “But no alcohol, or anything else unusual.”
“I doubt Adam would drink alcohol. His parents are very strict, preach abstinence in the community and whatnot. All sorts of abstinence.”
John picked up his mobile and tapped slowly.
Nicholl’s tox shows elevated caffeine, energy drink in stomach. Porter’s tox screen not available yet. Nothing unusual on body, sorry.
He could see that Sherlock had read the message, but no reply came through.
Ellie’s phone beeped a while later. Her face fell when she looked at the screen. “Oh, crap. Olly tweeted that you and Sherlock are in town. So much for discretion.”
“My nephew. Who will be getting an earful later today from me.”
Evening caught everyone almost by surprise. After dropping John at the station, Ellie had rushed to pick up Tom and Fred who had spent the day at her sister’s. Sherlock had gone into his mind palace after reading John’s text but woke up from his reverie when he stepped into the room.
“Thinking”? John knew better than to interrupt Sherlock’s trance-like sessions when puzzling pieces of a case together, but he seemed to be out of his head now. Sherlock remained seated, steepled fingers on his lips.
“Yes. Obviously, we need Porter’s toxicology report, but I expect it to be similar to Nicholl’s: there will be indications that the boy drank energy drinks, or perhaps simply high-caffeinated drinks, to keep alert.” Sherlock got up from his chair, and motioned John to look at the circled dates. “The boys slipped out of their houses several times in the months leading to their deaths, without the knowledge of their families. Some of the dates coincide, but not all. What is mystifying me is where these boys are going in the dead of the night? What for?” Sherlock scrunched his face.
John snorted at this. “You serious? You can’t think of a single reason for teenage boys to meet after-hours without wanting their families to know their whereabouts?” He started counting with his fingers. “Girls, smoking, girls, drugs, girls, drinking, did I mention girls?”
“I never went out in the middle of the night to meet … girls.”
“Well, you wouldn’t, would you?” John immediately regretted saying this, as Sherlock gave him a pained look. “Sorry, that was uncalled for.”
Alec stepped in the room at that moment. “Someone deliberately wiped all records of electronic communication on the nights of the murders. I mean, all records. Either that, or no one in Dorset used their mobiles those nights, at all.”
He was, however, ignored by Sherlock as his face lit up. “John. John! Your frivolous knowledge of human rituals is once again invaluable!” He picked up his jacket and swooped towards the exit, while John looked amused, knowing better than to feel insulted. “We have to find out where these kids meet.”
Alec interrupted. “Hang on. Which kids are meeting whom?”
Sherlock pulled John’s sleeve impatiently while addressing Alec. “Don’t you see? Both boys came from traditional families, had good grades, didn’t make any waves. What’s their outlet? They are part of a group that blow off steam doing something slightly illicit – escaping their houses when their families have gone to bed and meeting other kids. Maybe drugs, maybe alcohol, but a venue is necessary. A venue where they can relax. A place where someone could choose a victim with the right physical traits without being noticed. Not the pathetic amusement arcade that passes as entertainment in this poor excuse for a coastal human settlement …”
Alec breathed between his teeth, “I’ll have to agree with you on that one …”
“… because they meet after-hours and wish to remain unseen. Put your least incompetent minion listing such locations; this is not London, I do not have knowledge of the terrain.”
“That doesn’t explain the records disappearing. Although it was probably the same person that used fake credit cards and ID to pick up three online orders of the same type of suit at Next in Dorchester.”
Sherlock shook his head. “Forget about that, Detective Inspector, it is a weak trail to follow.”
“I can’t really forget about it. The ID they used to pick up the suits?”
John and Sherlock looked expectantly at Alec.
“ ‘Sherlock Holmes’.”
Chapter 3: An Unexpected Visitor
Chapter polished to a mirror sheen by hotshoeagain... again! Added some tags for present and future chapters.
This and Chapter 4 are short ones, but to compensate, you will get Chapter 4... tomorrow!
“How was your day?”
Ellie sat once again behind the wheel, now driving home after picking up Tom and Fred at her sister’s. Olly escaped his earful by not being at home, which was not unsurprising – he still harboured hopes to make it to a mainstream newspaper, and worked long days and weekends wishing someone would notice him.
Tom sat next to Ellie, while Fred made happy noises in the backseat. “Fine.”
Ellie nodded once at this but could not avoid a quiet sigh. Ever since Joe had been accused of murdering Danny, Tom behaved erratically. Throughout most of the trial, he took sides with Joe, refusing to entertain the notion his father could be a murderer. Ellie could not blame him but, in the end, she was hurt when Tom had refused to live with her and had effectively moved in with his aunt. After an ultimatum where Ellie reminded exactly who was the parent and who was the underaged boy in the family, Tom moved back in, but their relationship continued to feel very fragile.
“Only you’re awful quiet today. Did you have fun with your aunt?” Ellie tried to extract something more out of him, fragile relationship notwithstanding; he was too quiet.
“We went down to the beach; it was ok, I guess.” He answered disinterestedly, looking out of the window.
“I understand if you’re upset at me for not being home with you on a Saturday; this case is giving us a lot of work. I am sorry.” Ellie knew she had to offer a submissive tone if she wanted to avoid a sulking teenager the rest of the evening.
“It’s okay.” Tom shifted in his seat, not taking his eyes off the landscape.
“We could order in pizza tonight, what do you think?” Ellie tried a lighter tone, but inside her there was turmoil – a constant worry on what it would take to get through to her son a full year after his father had been banished from their lives.
Ellie gave up and continued driving in silence through the emerald green hills in the dwindling daylight.
Alec leaned against the counter while his tea re-heated in the microwave. Laura sipped her coffee, shifting nervously from one foot to the other.
“I’m really sorry, sir. I’m pretty sure we were thorough. The online orders were made with a forged credit card. The orders were picked up by a man presenting an ID with the same name as on the credit card.”
“ ‘Sherlock Holmes’.” Alec sighed, raising his eyes to the ceiling. The microwave dinged, and he retrieved his mug.
“Yes, sir. The cashier gave a description, but quite vague – a tall man with broad shoulders, but nothing more noteworthy. The online purchase was done from an untraceable source. Our IT guy is looking into it, but it does not look promising. Whoever did this knows their way around online anonymity.”
“Whoever did this also erased the records for communications on the night Adam and Simon were murdered. We are adding ‘computer nerd’ to the murderer’s profile.” Alec took a sip and scrubbed a hand over his face. “Male, strong-enough build to murder kids by suffocating them with his bare hands, intelligent enough to cover his physical and electronic tracks, obsessed with Sherlock Holmes.” He suddenly slapped his forehead, “Of course, am I stupid? Vickers, I want a list of everyone who has ever been convicted thanks to Sherlock Holmes. We need to check for prison release dates that will fit with our timeline. ‘Old disgruntled acquaintance’ is looking promising.”
“That is a preposterous waste of time and resources, Detective Inspector.” Sherlock’s voice boomed from across the room. “None of the criminals that I have helped put behind bars fit your otherwise astoundingly accurate profile. This is someone from Moriarty’s network, or what is left of it.”
Sherlock stepped slowly towards them. “There was a terrorist cell based in Serbia connected to Moriarty. Vast and well-organised, dozens of people involved in military espionage, arms trafficking, drug trafficking, money laundering. They used sophisticated electronic means to divert and conceal funds for their operations – Moriarty himself was a skilled hacker, that was his MO. The cell was dismantled about two years ago. At the time, all elements seemed to have been neutralised.”
John followed Sherlock silently and glanced uneasily at the group, busying himself with making a cup of tea. John had learned enough by now to make his heart clench at the mention of Serbia. Not just the cold facts Sherlock was listing, but also how he had come across the cell – by getting captured and tortured when he was playing spy. John chastised himself at thinking of Sherlock’s venture as ‘playing spy’ though, as he had seen the marks left on his body from his cruel captors.
Alec looked tiredly at Sherlock, but Laura was curious. “You seem to be describing a secret intelligence operation. How can you possibly have access to that information?”
Sherlock hesitated, and locked eyes with John. A reassuring gesture, as John read a glint of serenity in his steady, cool gaze. John was growing uneasy with the course of the conversation – the last thing he wanted was to see regression. It had been months since the last flashback. And they wanted to keep it that way.
Sherlock faced Laura after schooling his features to his usual blank expression. “It is my business to know what other people don’t know. Further details are indeed classified, and not relevant for this case, Constable. What is important is to notice it’s not certain that all the threads of Moriarty’s web were neatly cut. The absence of activity characteristic of that cell in the last two years let us think that it was gone.”
“Mr Holmes,” Alec started with what he thought was the most patient tone humanly possible, paused, took a sip of his tea, grimaced, and started re-heating his mug in the microwave again, “what does any of that have to do with the murders of two boys in Broadchurch? Hmm?”
Sherlock was about to reply when Alec held up one finger in a distinct ‘be quiet, I am not finished’ gesture as the microwave dinged again. He retrieved his mug, took another sip, looked satisfied, and continued. “Because if the whole thing looked theatrical before, now I am getting convinced it is ludicrous. I will admit having been tempted to believe someone is killing boys to your likeness and that the bodies are spelling your name. But there are easier explanations to all this that do not involve terrorist cells, abnormally-sized killers, or your inflated ego.” He stepped forward towards Sherlock, right hand still holding the tea mug, left hand confidently on his hip, and jutted his chin out. “I had to accept any help coming this way, but it’s not a permanent contract. We appreciate your and Dr Watson’s efforts, and you have my most sincere gratitude for spotting the abnormal pattern in the mobile communications,” he added, not without a hint of sarcasm, “but I believe that we have exhausted your expertise in our case.”
Sherlock looked at him with a blank expression, while John fidgeted behind Alec. Laura cleared her throat. “Technically, since your name appeared in connection to the purchase of the victims’ suits, it is not proper procedure to continue to have your official involvement in the case, Mr Holmes. I’m sure we can all understand that. Sir.”
John set down his mug hard on the bench, startling Alec and Laura. He held their gazes defiantly. “Is Sherlock being considered a suspect in any way?” Sherlock smirked at his ‘Captain Watson’ tone.
“No, Dr Watson, please do relax. I don’t intend to involve your partner in any aspect of this investigation.” Alec noticed the shift in John’s demeanour and reacted cautiously. “I sincerely think that using his name as the buyer was a lark. But between pursuing a rigorous line of serious investigation using well-established procedures or jumping to conclusions based on dubious personal interpretations, I will go with the first one.”
“How do you explain the similarities between the victims and myself, Detective Inspector?” Sherlock cut in abrasively, spitting his contempt at Alec.
“The victims are similar to Danny Latimer!” Alec shouted back. “There’s plenty of cases of murders with the victims being dressed up in whatever turned their killers on! Suits can be bought around any corner! At Next, apparently!”
John clenched his left fist. “You are making a mistake. Sherlock doesn’t work like that. With personal bias when it comes to a case. He’s likely seeing connections that we miss, or, or, or take too long for us to put together. You are being unfair.”
“Well, it’s lovely that you are so confident in his abilities, but my word is final. Thank you for your assistance and have a safe trip back to London.” Alec dumped his tea, turned around and strode off. Laura muttered a good-bye and excused herself.
John was now seeing red. Who the hell did this guy think he was, making them come all the way to Broadchurch and then ignoring their help? “What do we do now, Sherlock?”
Sherlock’s smirk had softened at John’s protectiveness. He inhaled sharply, composing himself. “Obviously, not go back to London. There is still a case to solve. Maybe your friend Sergeant Miller will be more … acquiescent?” He quirked up an eyebrow suggestively.
“You are not seriously suggesting that I should go and flirt with Ellie to get us back on the case.” John sighed.
“Oh no, I would never suggest such a thing,” Sherlock answered in mock outrage, “rather that she might be amenable to not kick us completely out of Broadchurch. And that your natural charm would come in handy for this end, of course.”
“Look …” John started moving towards the door, and Sherlock followed. They both nodded at Laura who was keeping a cautious eye on them from across the room. “… I understand it’s important to you to get to the bottom of this, but I’m not comfortable in using my, er, charms for this. Let’s try honesty instead? We’ll go to her place, explain our point of view, get the advantage before Hardy talks to her.”
John hoped that this tactic would convince Sherlock. Sure, it made sense that if one of them would make the case for staying in Broadchurch and help out, it would be John, with his mellow demeanour and easy empathy. But he could not help feeling that Sherlock was using the circumstances to put some polite distance between them. John sensed the slow glide away from the warm cocoon of intimacy the two men had developed since his return to Baker Street.
They stepped out of the police building. “Why my dear John, I never thought I’d see the day you would refuse a flirt with a pretty woman. Now, where do we get a taxi in this place?”
Sherlock’s mocking tone grated on John’s patience, but he kept quiet and followed.
Ellie was busy with washing up after the pizza dinner when Sherlock and John arrived.
“Oh, hello, boys, any luck after I left?”
Sherlock grumbled something under his breath and went straight upstairs to their guest room. John smiled apologetically at her. “Sorry, Ellie, he’s in a bit of a state. Ah, can we sit down a bit and talk?”
Ellie narrowed her eyes at him and put on the kettle. “Tea?”
“Lovely, thank you.”
They moved into the living room and sat down on the sofa. Between sips of hot tea, John gave an account of Sherlock’s findings, and of Alec’s reaction. He avoided the subject of how Sherlock had inside intelligence on a Serbian terror cell but could not stop from displaying his own frustration at Alec’s prompt dismissal of their services. Not now when it seemed this had something to do with Sherlock.
Ellie sighed tiredly. “I can see his point of view, you know. If I am objective, totally objective, it still looks like we are dealing with a copycat serial murderer, someone finding victims looking like Danny. It sickens me, but after what happened with Danny, nothing surprises me any longer.” She paused and looked thoughtfully at an undefined spot on the carpet. “Someone smart, who can hide their trail, who picked Sherlock’s name to order suits as a laugh. It does fit, but …” She shook her head thoughtfully.
John picked up on her reticence and pushed carefully on. “But it doesn’t quite fit all details, right? Like the position of the bodies.”
“Look, Sherlock is good at this. Really good. And yeah, he is egocentric in many aspects, but not about cases. Two kids died; this is not about him, but … it might just be. About him. And that worries me. Hardy is being a bit unreasonable.”
John was worried. He had to remind himself that Moriarty was dead, but his ghost coated this case like a greasy film. And if in the past this would have excited Sherlock as another move in a great game, now there was a more reserved mood. John had observed him closely after they learned the suits were bought in Sherlock’s name: there was reluctance in his attitude, as if he was out of his element. He wondered if being outside of London was eroding Sherlock’s confidence. Not knowing the terrain, having to deal with ghosts from the past, recalling his time away. Time that he spent to ensure John’s safety.
“Oh, leave Alec to me, I can handle him.” Ellie quipped, and sipped her tea. “But you must understand that Danny’s case … we ruined it by not being careful about certain procedures. We left a tiny fissure, and the defence made a canyon out of it. Alec may sound unreasonable, but he is just being cautious.”
“Ellie … three suits were sold.”
“I know. Another poor sod could be murdered. Someone’s son. Don’t you think I know, John?” She sighed. “Let’s sleep on the matter, okay? Maybe Sherlock can make his case sound a bit less … fantastic? Hardy will listen to reason.”
John nodded. “Thank you, Ellie, really appreciate it. I think I’ll turn in now. Goodnight.”
Ellie went to rinse the tea mugs and sat at the kitchen table, considering the events of the day. Sherlock Holmes was a curious man – aloof but intense, with an intelligent, piercing gaze, and an amazing capacity to see patterns that others missed. He did not appear to be the paranoid type, so why make this case about him? And John seemed to be a sensible bloke, balancing Sherlock’s abrasiveness with his own mild manners, but keeping a steely, almost military stance around him.
A curious pair, these two, but it was plain to see that somehow it worked.
Her mind wandered to her son Tom. His monosyllabic answers had continued throughout dinner, and he had escaped quickly afterwards to his room. He was now probably listening to music or playing some game on his computer with his headphones on. Avoiding the world. Avoiding her. Ellie woke up from her self-deprecating reverie to notice the kitchen clock pointing to almost midnight, and was rising from her seat when a movement just outside the window caught her attention.
Her cop instincts made her move quickly to turn off the light in the kitchen, immersing the lower floor of the house in darkness. She moved slowly towards the hallway and stood silently in front of the door. The motion sensor activated the light outside on the porch, making Ellie gasp. She reacted quickly, gripped the door handle firmly and opened the door in one swift movement.
Behind it stood Joe Miller.
Chapter 4: Broken Lives
John climbed the stairs to the guest room after his talk with Ellie and met a brooding Sherlock, hammering at his laptop. Without a word, John reached for his pyjamas and toothbrush, and retired to the bathroom. Lazily brushing his teeth, his thoughts whirled around this supposed connection to Moriarty. He would rather distrust himself than to doubt Sherlock – and he often did – but he was forced to recognise Alec’s and Ellie’s reservations about this connection. Sherlock was undoubtedly already two miles ahead of them in profiling the murderer, understanding the motive, and planning a trap, but as usual he was not proficient in sharing his thought processes with common mortals.
Noticing he had brushed his teeth for way longer than needed, he went back to the bedroom.
“Hm.” Sherlock continued to type as if his life depended on it.
“Would you please set aside your computer for a minute and have a decent conversation with me.”
Sherlock looked cautiously at him. “Did you work your charms on Sergeant Miller?”
John pinched the bridge of his nose, sighing deeply, but decided to avoid taking the bait. “I talked to her, and she is sympathetic to our cause. But Sherlock, I am unsure what our cause is. Remember what we promised each other?”
Sherlock pursed his lips and nodded slowly. John’s return to Baker Street had not been completely peaceful. The baggage stemming from their pursuit of Mary added a heavy weight on top of all things that had been unsaid for a long time. And many had remained unsaid, but they did reach compromises, and promises were exchanged. Such as Sherlock not leaving John in the dark about cases. Or John not leaving Sherlock, period.
“John … it seems all I do is apologise, but I must do so again. I pondered over Inspector Hardy’s words. I am a drama queen,” he smirked, “but I also do not believe in coincidences, and there are too many of them here. I do not think I am biased.”
“Me neither, Sherlock. But you lost us with the whole Serbia talk. Look. You know I believe you. I believe in you.”
“I know, John. Your solid faith in my abilities both lifts and grounds me. A most fascinating paradox.”
John smiled softly at this and sat next to Sherlock on his bed. “You do that to me too, Sherlock, you must know this.”
Sherlock looked hesitantly at him and took a deep breath. “Yes.” He straightened his spine and continued in a low tone, “When I was in Serbia, after being captured … I heard names, rumours … but after some time, reality got blurred with delirious fever dreams, and I’m not always sure what was said out loud, or what my mind created.”
John felt a pang of sadness at watching Sherlock doubting his intellect. “You’re not making stuff up now, Sherlock. You are in full possession of your faculties.”
“Moriarty is dead.”
John frowned at the non-sequitur. “Uh … yes?”
“Still, I hear him all the time in my head. Triumphantly declaring how much we are alike, he and I. Tell me, John,” Sherlock turned to his friend, who was still frowning at the path the conversation had taken, “what makes me a better person than he was?”
“Are you serious? He was a psychopath murderer, blew up people to play games with you, took his own life to make you take yours, managed a team of assassins ready to kill your friends … Do you want me to continue? Because I will.”
“I did things that were … not good while I was away, John. In the end, I became what Moriarty wanted me to be.”
John knew this. Maybe not all details, but he had figured out that to take down Moriarty’s web, Sherlock had been forced into a lot of dirty work and had blood on his hands.
“I don’t have a pristine record myself, Sherlock. We make difficult decisions sometimes, and then must live with them. We carry that little bit of darkness within but try to keep it at bay with everything that is bright.”
“Your metaphors are increasingly ludicrous, John.” Sherlock smirked quickly at this, then lowered a pensive gaze to the floorboards. “Is that how we justify what we did to Mary?”
“It was her or us. She was going to put a bullet through your head. But Sherlock,” John laid a cautious hand between Sherlock’s shoulder blades, “that doesn’t mean I don’t have a hard time living with what I did. Sometimes I close my eyes and still see the blood.”
“You have nightmares about it.”
“Yes, but I’ll rather have the nightmares than to lose you again.”
Sherlock looked up at John again and smiled sadly. John dropped his hand from Sherlock’s back and cleared his throat. “Right, so. Let’s focus on the case. We’re not out of Broadchurch yet; maybe we can still help, Hardy be damned. He’ll come around, hopefully with Ellie’s help.”
“Two adolescent boys sneak sporadically out at night, presumably without their families’ knowledge. Occasionally, they both slip out of their homes on the same night. Coincidence? No, these kids are going somewhere; they meet with others.” Sherlock focused his gaze on the opposite wall. “In contrast with what happened most times, on the nights of their murders their phone records vanish.”
“Can we pinpoint where they were on the other nights?”
“The mobile network coverage is spotty outside the centre of the town, and the pinged towers cover a wide area. Difficult to narrow down a specific location.”
“But the murderer did not know this, right? So, he wipes off everybody’s records of those nights, in hopes that it will be dismissed as a glitch, or something like that.”
“Oh! That’s very good, John!” Sherlock gave him a genuine smile. “He’s concerned about covering his tracks, but he didn’t target just the records of the boys’ phones. Which takes us to the next logical step.” John nodded at him to continue. “It is not a trivial task to hack those records and wipe them. It is however quite straightforward even for the dullest criminal to get false IDs and credit cards for online purchases.”
“… You think this was not the same person!” Realisation crossed John’s face – the killer could have obtained the suits but delegated the hacking. “He can’t hack, so he asked a mate – or paid off someone, more likely. But didn’t give the hacker more details than ‘wipe this range of mobile records’ so as to not connect him with the murders!”
“Excellent, John!” Sherlock hopped from the bed and twirled around in excitement. “But there is another aspect we must not forget.”
“Which is ...”
John sighed. “Sherlock, you know I hate when you’re being cryptic. Which ‘others’?”
Sherlock scowled impatiently at him. “The other kids, John! Who else is going for midnight gatherings in Broadchurch? We find them, we find the place where the victims were picked up!”
John’s retort froze in his throat as Ellie’s voice roared from downstairs. In a split second, John was bolting out of the door with Sherlock on his heels.
“What the hell are you doing here?”
After the initial shock, rage invaded Ellie. The sight of her ex-husband was the last thing she expected. Joe had been effectively banished from Broadchurch by those closest to him, his acquittal from Danny’s murder notwithstanding. Any hope he might have had to restart a normal life should have been suppressed after facing the darkness in Tom’s eyes, the hardly contained wrath in Ellie, the disappointment in Reverend Paul, Beth Latimer’s red-rimmed eyes, the loathing in Mark’s.
So, what the hell was he doing there?
Joe was a rabbit in the headlights, startled by both the sudden porch light and Ellie’s venomous reaction.
“Ellie. I …”
She stepped threateningly towards him. “Do you remember. What I told you. When we made you leave?”
Joe slowly raised placating hands. “I wanted to see Tom. I wanted to see my children, Ellie!”
Ellie saw red. As if in an out-of-body experience, she felt herself move quickly towards Joe. He stumbled backwards and fell on his arse, shoulders and head scraping along a shrub on his way down. Ellie found herself straddling Joe, holding a pavement stone high in her right hand.
“You have … no right! To come here!”
“Ellie, no!” John grabbed her right arm firmly mid-air, sneaked his left arm around her waist and lifted her in one go. She had not heard John bursting out of the doorway behind her. She didn’t know how she had pushed Joe down on the ground, or where the stone came from. How Sherlock managed to pry said stone from her death grip was also something she could not later explain. Her world narrowed to the man still prostrate on the ground in front of their former home.
Joe widened his eyes at the presence of the two men. Ellie fought against John’s grip, who used all his combat training to restrain her.
“Let me go, John. He knows what needs to happen next.”
Her icy tone unnerved John but he didn’t relax his hold on her. “He’s not worth it, Ellie. He’s not worth it.”
“Did you kill Adam and Simon too, you pervert? Did you come back for more?” Ellie’s rage translated into tears; she breathed raggedly, squirming against John’s firm hold.
“What? No! Ellie …” Joe raised himself cautiously from the ground, rubbing a bruised elbow. “I didn’t mean to startle you, I just wanted to see our children. From the window. Ellie … please, I miss them …”
“They’re not ‘our children’, Joe. They’re not your children. Not any longer.” She sagged slightly against John’s torso, suddenly losing her energy, tears flowing freely down her face. “You relinquished that right the night you killed Danny. You monster. Filthy pile of shit.”
“Mr Miller. Perhaps it would be wise if you go your way now.” Sherlock addressed Joe in a steady but unmistakable dismissive tone. “Since you are not responsible for the recent murders, your presence here will only further muddle the already confused police force of Broadchurch. Clearly, Sergeant Miller does not wish you to lurk around her house.”
Joe got up and composed himself, looking back and forth between the three of them, finally stopping to contemplate Ellie. “I just wanted to see my boys. Tom still loves me, and Fred will never know me if … I thought maybe … Well, I see you didn’t waste any time anyway.” He flicked his eyes to the pyjama-clad John still gripping Ellie by her waist. John became suddenly self-conscious about his state of undress.
“How dare you, you swine!” Ellie bellowed with renewed strength. John silently thanked his army combat skills in immobilising her adrenaline-fuelled movements.
Joe recoiled at her shout. A heavy silence blanketed the scene, cut only by summer night noises. The sound of waves crashing ashore was muffled by the neatly trimmed hedges cocooning the house, hiding broken lives.
Sherlock was the first to break the stillness, stepping towards Joe and tilting his head.
Joe blinked once, twice, turned around and walked away quickly, slipping into the night.
“I would have killed him. I would. I promised I would kill him if he ever showed up again on Broadchurch. And that, and that unlike him, I would face the consequences.” Ellie’s voice trembled while struggling against renewed tears, clutching a cooling tea mug at the kitchen table. The last tendrils of adrenaline dissipated and gradually gave way to exhaustion.
John was sitting next to her, hands clasped on the table top, speaking in a kind voice. “It’s alright, Ellie. It’s understandable that you would feel that way.”
“I almost did it. I was going to hit him.”
Sherlock sat across from them in silence, observing the exchange. John knew that this was the sort of situation where Sherlock would let him take the lead.
Ellie shook her head slowly, staring at her tea. “Sometimes I think he created a black hole inside me. Something that sucks out all the good there ever was.” She closed her eyes. “I felt it first when I learned he killed Danny. I feel it every time I remember I slept with a murderer. Shared my life with a monster. I never really knew him, did I? Some detective I am.”
John flicked his eyes to Sherlock who returned a charged look. The men kept quiet.
Ellie opened her eyes and took a deep breath. “Thank you, John. Sherlock. Nothing good would have come out of this if you hadn’t shown up.” She glanced towards the staircase. “I’m amazed Fred hasn’t woken up with all this noise. Tom probably still has his headphones on.”
“Ellie, why don’t you go and get some rest? Do you need something to help you sleep better?”
“Thank you, John, I have something upstairs.” She smiled weakly at him. “Old prescription against jet lag. Was useful during the trial.” She rose from her chair. “You are right, we should all get some rest. I’ll just …”
“We will make sure all windows and doors are properly locked, Ellie. Do take John’s suggestion – go and rest.” Sherlock spoke softly, also rising from his chair.
“Thank you, Sherlock. I’ll just check on Fred, then. Goodnight, gentlemen.”
Ellie climbed up the stairs. John unclasped his hands and straightened his back, looking at Sherlock. “That guy must have a death wish. Showing up unannounced at his copper ex-wife’s house at night. He’s lucky to be alive. You don’t think he has anything to do with the murders, do you?” He scowled – it didn’t make sense in his head that Joe Miller would be involved in the recent murders, but he would always be a suspect somehow.
Sherlock moved towards the kitchen window, inspecting the latch. “No. He murdered Latimer but has kept out of Broadchurch until now. While I do not believe in coincidences, I will acknowledge that sometimes they do occur – his timing is anything but impeccable, it seems. Or dreadful.” John hummed distractedly at this.
The two men then made good on their promise to check all doors and windows before retiring upstairs to their bedroom, hoping for a quieter night.
Alec woke up startled with the frantic buzzing of his mobile on the bedside table. The bedroom was bathed in the blush pink pre-dawn light.
“PC Harper here, sir.” The male voice on the other side sounded strained, and Alec came immediately to full awareness. “There’s been another murder.”
Chapter 5: Military Precision
Thanks again to hotshoeagain, who helps me keep prepositions in place, Sherlock in character and 'false friends' at bay!
John had not slept well, but there was no chance for a lie-in after Ellie banged on their bedroom door. Despite Sherlock’s protests, Ellie drove them to the police station under the clear dawning sky. “Hardy is at the crime scene. I can’t take you there without talking to him first, he will have kittens if I show up with you two in tow,” she explained patiently.
“Give me details, then, anything I can work with, Detective Sergeant!”
“I don’t have details! All I know is that there is another dead boy on the beach! Now shut up, or I’ll drive you back home!” Ellie finally snapped. Joe’s unwelcome apparition from the previous night still haunted her, and her frayed nerves had had just about enough. Thoughts were whirling around what connection there might be between the two events: it couldn’t be a coincidence, Joe showing up and another murder committed? A wave of nausea overtook her.
John saw that it was as good time to intervene as any. “I’m sorry, Ellie. We understand that we can’t show up uninvited to the crime scene. Don’t we, Sherlock?” John twisted his torso as far as the seatbelt allowed him to glare pointedly at a moody Sherlock. He continued cautiously to Ellie, “but it would be great if we could visit it at some point today. He is good at finding clues others miss,” John nodded shortly in Sherlock’s direction to emphasize his point, and added quickly, “even good detectives can miss details.”
Ellie gave him a side look. “Don’t try to schmooze me into convincing Hardy. I appreciate your help, but he has to be onboard.”
As they stepped out of the car in front of the police building, they saw Alec Hardy walking towards them, running nervous fingers through his hair.
“I thought you were at the crime scene!” Ellie quickly went into apologetic mode before Alec would lash out at the sight of Sherlock and John.
“I have been there. Came here because I figured out you would be bringing those two,” he pointed an accusatory finger at them, “so that you would have time to convince me to allow them at the crime scene. And I have a half mind to agree to this madness.”
Ellie was stunned at this. Well, it had been a correct assessment, but Alec looked like something the cat had brought in, and it was not just because a new body had been found.
Sherlock clasped his hands behind his back and took a step towards Alec.
“Tell me, Detective Inspector. Is the new body an adolescent boy with dark curly hair, pale blue eyes, athletic build?”
Alec glared at him, angry mouth corners down-turned and nostrils flaring, but did not reply. Sherlock took another step and continued in a clipped tone. “Dressed in a suit, perhaps that third one bought online by a ‘Sherlock Holmes’? And, oh … lying down on the sand in a peculiar position likely forced during the onset of rigor mortis?” He closed the distance to Alec until the two men were mere inches apart. “The position being similar to that of Porter, but mirrored?” Sherlock delivered the last word between clenched teeth. Alec did not look away but swallowed visibly.
“Correct on all accounts, Mr Holmes. Good thing you have an alibi, eh? Anything else you wish to add?”
Alec’s attempt at deflecting Sherlock’s piercing focus fell through when Sherlock ended his speech. “This investigation might move a bit quicker if you were to take my word as gospel.”
The sun had managed to seep over the horizon by the time they approached the taped-off area. The lanky body of a teenage boy lay on the sandy ground exactly as Sherlock had described. John groaned at the sight – yet another young life taken by the serial killer. Someone obsessed with Sherlock, someone who was in town just last night. Might still be. He looked around involuntarily in an obvious futile attempt to spot the killer.
“Victim is still unidentified.” Alec lifted the tape to pass under, “We’ll probably get a missing person call from his family in a few hours.”
The Scenes of Crime Officer Brian Young was crouching next to the body and looked up at the sound of Alec’s voice. He straightened himself up, somewhat surprised at the presence of Sherlock and John. “I’d rather not have the crime scene contaminated.”
“Then you should hand me some of those gloves.” Sherlock did not wait for a reply and took a pair from a box of disposable gloves under Brian’s glower.
Alec intervened in a defeated tone. “Just … let him have five minutes, will you?” Brian continued to frown at the situation but nodded in agreement and took a step back.
“John?” Sherlock looked at his friend, who was still wearing a pained look on his face.
“Yeah, yeah, let me put on gloves too.” After donning a pair, John squatted next to the body. “Male, about 12 years old, dead for at least four to six hours. Bruising around the mouth and nose,” he peeled carefully down the shirt’s collar, “and neck. Size of bruises suggests a strong male perpetrator. Um, I think the bruising agrees with the time of death assessment. Injuries similar to Porter’s and Nicholl’s. Well, nothing we didn’t know already even without examining the body, so what should I be looking for instead?”
“A mistake.” Sherlock scowled at the body.
Brian cleared his throat. “Well, I found a light-coloured hair on his jacket.” Sherlock whirled around and loomed closer to him.
“Let me see.” Brian handed him the evidence bag, and Sherlock inspected it for a few seconds. “Ah, DNA. John, maybe we have our mistake here.”
John got up from his crouching position, wincing at the popping sound from his joints. “The other bodies were cleaned with military precision, and this one too, except for that hair, then.” He nodded towards the evidence bag.
Sherlock tensed and took in a sharp breath. “John. John! You are brilliant! As usual, you are unbeatable at stimulating my mental processes.”
“I … Okay, what did I say now?”
“It is blindingly obvious! Military precision, John!” Sherlock quickly removed his gloves, discarding them haphazardly on the ground, much to Brian’s chagrin. “We are so focused on finding evidence that we forget to observe what we don’t see!”
Alec and Ellie watched this exchange with confusion plastered on their faces. Alec scratched his beard. “And what we don’t see is …”
“A single speckle of dust, hair, or anything else that does not belong on this beach. Nothing!” Sherlock answered gleefully. “They have been cleaned with military precision!” At the sight of several confused faces frowning at him, Sherlock lost his patience and fired off. “Oh, look at you lot, is it too early for your funny little brains? The murderer is ex-army. Look at the body! How is it placed? Perpendicular to the shoreline, correct? No, no, it is exactly perpendicular to the shoreline, not a degree off. The clothes are immaculate save for the sand. His position? If you overlap his precise position with that of Porter’s, their hands would be touching – no, holding. Forming a perfect H. His victims are hand-picked, killed with a particular technique, immaculately groomed to a tee – like with a military uniform – and specifically shaped and placed. Impeccable selection of target; a murderer dispassionate enough to handle the body while it’s stiffening. Hence: a former military man.”
“Is it him?” A male voice sounded from several metres away. They turned to see Mark Latimer standing just outside the closed-off area, staring at the body that Brian hurried now to cover.
Ellie walked over to Mark. “You know we cannot comment on an ongoing investigation, Mark.”
“Tell me if it’s him, Ellie, we deserve to know.” Mark looked at her with a mix of sadness and anger. “He’s preying on other boys, isn’t he? He’s back to torment us all.”
“Mark … Joe is not in Broadchurch.” Ellie felt her guts twist at the half-truth. “Please, let us work here.”
“How many more kids are going to die before we put a stop to him, Ellie? What kind of justice is this?” Mark did not wait for an answer before turning and walking away.
Alec rested his hands on his hips and looked up to the sky. “Great, just what we needed. Mark Latimer, vigilante warrior.”
Ellie ran her fingers through her curls, but while watching Mark walking away, someone else caught her attention.
“Oh no, you will not!” She took off half-running towards Olly Stevens, who was taking pictures with his mobile of the whole scene.
“Hi, auntie! Anything to state about the latest murder on Broadchurch?”
“Go away, Olly. I mean it, you’re not welcome here.”
“It’s not forbidden to take photos of the beach, and there’s the whole freedom of press thing, you know? Again, anything to state? Maybe I could have a photo of Holmes with the hat,” he whined hopefully.
“No comments.” Ellie grabbed Olly’s arm and turned him forcefully around. “If we have any comments to give to the press, we’ll call a press conference, understand? And no more photos, crime scene is closed for press.” She snatched Olly’s mobile and searched for the latest photos.
“Oi! You can’t do that!” Olly tried to snatch his phone back, but Ellie was already deleting files.
“Oh, I can’t? Well, too bad it’s done already.” She tossed the phone on the sand while Olly gaped at her, frozen in place. Ellie looked back to the taped-off scene. “Are we quite done here? We have a murderer to catch.”
A deafening silence fell over them, interrupted by the soft crash of waves. Alec, Sherlock and John looked back at Ellie, and silently left Brian and the other officers to work. It was going to be one of those scorching summer days when not even a light breeze breaks the oppressing heat, and they could all feel it already this early.
Sherlock slipped his phone out of his pocket, unlocked the screen, and started typing.
“There’s something you need to know.” They were back at the police station, early morning sun once again bathing the main room. Ellie stood in front of Alec, tension visible on her body. “Joe showed up on my doorstep last night.”
Alec widened his eyes at this, and dragged Ellie into his office, slamming the door behind them.
“What the hell, Miller! Why didn’t you say anything earlier?!”
“Well, I’m saying it now!”
“Not good enough, Miller! If Joe is around when a murder like this occurs, we have to find out about his whereabouts!” Alec spread his arms in exasperation. “What time did he show up? What happened, where did he go after? Why was he there?”
“He said he wanted to see Tom and Fred. He was sneaking around the house, and I surprised him when he got close to the front door. I asked him what he was doing there. Well. Shouted.” She took in a deep breath. “I. I tried to hurt him. It’s a bit of a blur, but … um. John and Sherlock stopped me. Just in time.”
“Bloody hell, did you attack him?” Alec dragged both hands through his hair, clutching at the short strands in the back.
“I … yes.” Ellie gazed down at her feet. “He left afterwards, I don’t know where he went. This was shortly before midnight.”
Alec paced nervously in the office, huffing. “Christ. He does have an alibi for the first two murders, though. A coincidence?”
Ellie swallowed thickly and looked up at him with red-rimmed eyes. “I don’t know what to think any longer, Alec. I almost killed him. I hardly remember what happened. If John and Sherlock had not intervened, you. You would be arresting me now.” She let out a shuddered breath. “At what point did I let him turn me into a monster too?”
Alec’s posture softened. “You’re not a monster, Miller.”
Ellie’s eyes filled with tears. “Since when are you the sentimental one around here?” It came out as a half chuckle, half sob. She quickly wiped her face and inhaled raggedly. “I don’t want him around my boys. He’s a molester. But part of me still wonders if it’s the right decision. He wouldn’t hurt Tom or Fred. Tom hates me, he misses his father, he–”
“No. Stop it, Ellie.” Alec cut abruptly but his tone was kind. “You are doing the right thing not letting him near your children. He threw away his chance to have a, a loving family. We do not know how far he would go. How far he will go. You’re not the monster here, Miller.”
Ellie slumped down into a chair and sighed. “Okay. Okay.”
Alec looked pensively at her. “Tom doesn’t hate you. It was just a lot to go through.” He cautiously approached Ellie and put a gentle hand on her shoulder. “Give him time. He came back to you, didn’t he?”
Ellie pursed her lips. It had been a year and Tom was slipping away from her again; she could feel it. “Yeah. You are probably right. This case is wearing me out, it’s not helping my state of mind.”
Alec squeezed her shoulder and stepped away to his chair. “Look. I’ll put Vickers on Joe’s trail, see where he went after your, er, encounter. We need to make sure he’s not around any longer. To find him before Mark does. It does not make sense that Joe would be responsible for this latest murder, but we need a clean case this time, no loose threads. Okay?”
“Okay. Yes, okay.”
“I’m still not happy at having those two,” Alec pointed at his closed door, “around in this investigation, but. We’re going to have the town holding pitchforks on our doorstep. Your nephew is buying his ticket out of Broadchurch with this story, and I doubt Maggie will stay put and not try to write about this. Too good of a story for her dwindling readership.”
Ellie took a deep breath to clear her head. Alec was obviously trying to steer the conversation away from Joe’s visit, and she was thankful for that. “Shouldn’t we talk to the press sooner rather than later? This is now beyond local news; we will be swamped.”
“Jenkinson will take care of that; this is her territory. But we need to move fast, faster than what we have moved so far. So. I’m allowing Holmes and Watson back on this case, but they have to report to either you or me. If the killer is choosing victims based on physical similarities to Holmes, then it’s a double-edged sword to have him muddling the investigation. I’m not having another unsolved case on my hands, or another case thrown out at court.”
“You solved the Sandbrook murders.” Ellie knew that Alec was still reeling after closing that case while watching Joe escape conviction. A bitter period when their careers were put on the chopping block, redemption coming slow as molasses and tasting like defeat.
“We did, Miller. And we’ll solve these ones.”
“Brother mine. Holidays on the Jurassic Coast? Searching for homicidal ammonites? I was unaware of your penchant for extremely cold cases.”
“Do shut up, brother dear. Your sense of humour decreases as your waistline expands.”
“I recall you were the one contacting me in the first place.” Mycroft Holmes’ amused drawl flowed from Sherlock’s phone, on speaker so John could follow the conversation.
“I recall you owing me a favour.”
“Very amusing, Sherlock. Though I do think the tally on favours currently favours my side.”
John lost his patience. “If you two are quite done with the sibling banter, could we get on with it? Mycroft, can you help us or not?”
“Of course, I can help you, Dr Watson, the question is rather whether I will.”
Sherlock rolled his eyes. “You are particularly insufferable today, Mycroft. Did you skip your morning slice of chocolate cake?”
John flattened his hands on the desk of the case room. He let his head hang in resignation, silently asking an unknown deity for strength to put up with two Holmes brothers simultaneously. John had seen Sherlock tapping a message to Mycroft when leaving the beach; and while Sherlock insisted in dismissing Mycroft out loud as an obnoxious meddlesome big brother, the fact was that they had become very close after Mary tried to kill Sherlock. Mycroft had been paramount in helping them to chase down Mary and eliminating her as the (supposed) last threat lingering from Moriarty’s network.
“Tut tut, Sherlock, just toast and coffee as usual. You have been distracted as of lately.” Mycroft’s voice interrupted John’s thoughts. “But enough chit-chat, things are stirring in Westminster, and my skills are … being summoned elsewhere. Now, as you should know, Her Majesty’s resources are not spuriously spent in chasing small-time criminals using intelligence services, but it does seem that something is … off. So yes, John, I will help.”
“Hardly small-time criminal if it’s Moriarty’s people.” John retorted impatiently.
“Which is why I am sending Sherlock an email as we speak with a few names of interest that are active on British soil in the … underground IT business, so to speak. Do try to not get sunburnt while sauntering by the seaside, brother dear. Good day.”
Mycroft ended the call, prompting another eye-roll from Sherlock. He quickly opened his email and downloaded a file.
“Remind me again why you asked for Mycroft’s help when you are apparently so disinterested in owing him favours.”
“It’s him owing us favours, do keep up, John. He is forever to be grateful for all our service for Queen and country. I would have looked this information up myself but being away from London slows everything down to an intolerable crawl.”
John could see why. Sherlock had no problem in imposing his presence anywhere, but being out of London meant being outside his element – his homeless network, the nooks and crannies of the city’s underbelly, and the comforting presence of Lestrade, still the only detective in the Met able to work with him. Here in Broadchurch, they were the proverbial fish out of water, blind to the terrain and the enemy. John was aware these were two factors a soldier could not ignore. And Sherlock was growing visibly impatient and uncomfortable.
After fiddling with a wireless printer for a few minutes, Sherlock had the file contents on paper, and both men scanned the printed list of names and addresses. “All these should be active black-hat hackers. We can probably eliminate those not operating in southern England – the killer would need some local knowledge.”
“And the second column are dates when they were active. So, if we compare these with the dates of the murders …”
“We will narrow the list down to a few suspects. With luck, only one or two will be based in West Dorset or East Devon.” Sherlock turned to John and smirked. “We will move faster if we find the suspects and interrogate them ourselves.”
“Sherlock …” John started in his warning ‘Captain Watson’ tone.
“They’re too slow, and Hardy needs to be convinced once again that I am on the right track.”
“Going off on our own will not make him trust us any more.”
“No,” Sherlock grinned with mischief, “but it will be fun.”
Amanda Rushford was currently in Alec Hardy’s office, sobbing. She had contacted the police early in the morning when it became clear that her son Peter was nowhere to be found after spending the night away from home. What she had not predicted was having to identify his body.
Ellie handed her a box of tissues. “We are truly sorry, Mrs Rushford. We know this is hard for you, but anything you can tell us about your son’s activities last night will be immensely helpful in finding the culprit.”
Mrs Rushford blew her nose and took some deep breaths. “I … don’t understand why this happened. Why him, Inspector?” She looked helplessly at Alec, who shifted uncomfortably next to Ellie in his seat.
“We don’t know yet, Mrs Rushford. But as Detective Sergeant Miller just said, anything you can tell us is useful. Did you notice Peter leaving the house last night?”
“Uh, yes, I did, around midnight. Not that I allowed him to, mind you, but he left anyway.”
Ellie and Alec looked up in surprise at this. “You … are you sure, Mrs Rushford? You heard Peter leaving at around midnight?”
“I … I saw him leaving. He slammed the front door on my face. I was so angry. God, I’d give anything for my last words to him not to be so angry!” With this, Mrs Rushford started another crying fit. Alec glanced at Ellie with a raised eyebrow.
Ellie held the box of tissues again. “Mrs Rushford, we all say harsh things to our children when we try to do the best for them. Don’t torture yourself over this.” Alec gave her a ‘get on with it’ eye-roll and Ellie silently replied with her ‘have some bloody patience, you knob’ glare. She focused her attention again on the crying woman, waiting a moment for the sobs to subside. “Um, this is actually very, very useful information for us. Would you be so kind to tell us more about his leaving the house? Where he was heading, if he was meeting someone, what he was wearing? Any details, even things you think are not important, could be helpful.”
Mrs Rushford took another paper tissue and sighed. “Pete was having some problems at school. He started hanging around with older boys, missing classes … started sometime in the spring. Then he started going out late at night. Jonathan, my husband, he caught him once sneaking out of the house after he was supposed to be in bed. They had a huge fight.”
“Where is your husband?” Alec scribbled on a notepad.
She looked up in alarm to Alec. “It was just angry shouting! He wouldn’t hurt our boy!”
“I’m sure he wouldn’t, Mrs Rushford, we just need to be thorough.”
She exhaled a ragged breath. “Jonathan, he, um, he drives a lorry, spends a lot of time away. He’s returning from Scotland today. Edinburgh, I think. Jonathan can rein Peter in, but I’m not as strong, so when he’s away … well, Pete doesn’t listen to me any longer. Didn’t.” She swallowed thickly. “I was afraid something like this would happen. He was keeping bad company.”
“So, yesterday … were you alone with Peter, um, with Pete in the evening? What was he doing before he left?
“I had the telly on, and Pete was in his room. Then just before midnight, I think, he came out and was about to leave through the front door when I stopped him. He shouted at me, that he was going out no matter what, and I shouted back at him, and … he just left, ran down the street, and that was the last. Time. I ever saw him … Huh …”
She frowned in confusion at Ellie. “He was wearing a suit now? He doesn’t have a suit; he had jeans and a t-shirt on him yesterday.”
“Er, yes, it seems that Pete changed clothes at some point.”
“This is related to the other boys’ deaths, isn’t it? The–the–the one last month, and last week, and, and the Latimer boy!”
Alec intervened when Mrs Rushford’s grief turned unsteadily into anger. “We can’t comment on details of the ongoing investigation but rest assured that we are doing our very best to get to the bottom of this.” He took a moment and continued. “Do you know where Pete was heading to?”
Mrs Rushford slumped in her chair, temper subdued as the anger dissipated. She wiped her runny nose. “Um, yes, well, I can’t be sure, but … some weeks after their fight, Pete left again, and Jonathan drove around town looking for him, to drag him back home. That’s when he found out he was meeting with other kids, boys and girls. They were hanging around the car park on the west cliffs, the, the top, you know? There’s a car park near the top where people go to see the coast views. I … I don’t remember more details, I’m sorry.”
Alec straightened himself on his chair. “When is your husband returning today?”
“He was supposed to arrive sometime this afternoon. Not sure exactly when.”
“Mrs Rushford, you’ve been most helpful. Thank you so much. We will find the person that did this to Pete, I promise you that.”
Ellie glanced uneasily at Alec’s sudden display of unexpected empathy but nodded in support. “We will need to have a few officers going through your place to collect evidence, if that is okay?”
Ellie summoned a constable to accompany Mrs Rushford, closed the door behind them, and turned to Alec. “Sherlock was right.”
“About what?” Alec threw his answer irritated at her.
“About the kids sneaking out at night to meet somewhere.”
“Not the most brilliant of deductions, is it. We would have arrived at the same conclusion. We just did.” Alec crossed his arms and huffed.
“Don’t give me this shit, Hardy!” Ellie snapped, stabbing a finger in the air at Alec. “We’ve been grasping at straws for more than a month, bodies of kids are piling up, and it took us all this time to find evidence of something Sherlock deduced within a few hours of being on the case! How about you swallow your stupid pride for once?!”
“Stupid p… Yes, Miller, evidence! Evidence! The small details that the Crown Prosecution Service needs to convict a criminal! Oh, maybe the CPS is accepting deductions as evidence these days?” Alec rose from his chair and spread his arms in mock surprise. “Well, let’s just put Sherlock Holmes in front of them; I’m sure it will be enough!”
Ellie glowered at him, turned around, and left the room without a word.
“Ma’am?” Laura intercepted Ellie as she slammed the door to Alec’s office behind her. “Peter Rushford’s suit is definitely the same model and material as the ones purchased on Next for Nicholls and Porter. Um, I took the liberty to authorize the release of the body to Dorchester for forensics.” Ellie glared at her – this sort of decision was usually made by the DI in charge of the case, although it was not unheard of to have other members of the team doing so. “I thought we needed to move fast with the post-mortem, and Brian was finished with the crime scene anyway,” Laura continued apologetically.
Ellie took a deep breath, rubbed her hands on her face and faced Laura again, “Alright, thank you Laura, that was well done. Just … inform Hardy. And get Rushford’s phone records today. I don’t care who you have to manhandle for this.”
There was something still not quite right – Laura shifted from one foot to the other and bit her lower lip. “What else?”
“Um, ma’am. There’s an awful lot of press outside. We had to lock the door.”
Ellie strode to one of the sunlit windows facing the front of the building and gasped at the sight of five TV and radio vans and a small sea of reporters. Amanda Rushford was surrounded by several of them, sobbing at stretched hands holding microphones and recorders. Ellie spotted Olly in the middle of the throng. “Bloody hell. Just. As long as everybody continues with the no comments policy, it will be alright. Jenkinson and Hardy will deal with the press later.” She turned to Laura, and continued in a softer tone, “Thank you, Laura, you’re doing a great job.”
Laura acquiesced with a small smile and turned away. Ellie glanced out of the window again and sighed. This could not have been avoided, but she was still mad at the vultures swarming around them, waiting for any scraps of juicy details. Against her better judgement, she took out her mobile and started scrolling through Google News:
‘Broadchurch Butcher Strikes Again’
‘Trouble in Paradise: New Murder in Broadchurch’
‘They’re Killing Our Children: Mothers of Broadchurch Angry at Police Inaction.’
‘Sherlock Holmes sighted in Broadchurch’
Ellie clenched her jaw, scowled one last time at the crowd, and walked decidedly to the case room.
John picked up a marker pen and started scrawling on the whiteboard.
“Alright, so. Three young teenage boys, Adam Nicholls, Simon Porter, and Peter Rushford, leave their homes late at night, around or just past midnight. The 11th of July, the 8th of August and the 15th of August. Hmm, any significance attached to these dates?”
“They are all Saturdays,” Sherlock replied, stepping next to John in front of the whiteboard. “Those times they used their mobiles in the middle of the night? Also Saturdays. Well, early Sundays.”
“Right. So, they left home to meet somewhere, maybe with others …”
“Most certainly with others.”
“Alright, genius, I’m trying to follow here, hang on. But either they never reached their destination, having been intercepted before, or they did get to their destination but were abducted there. Or on their way home. However, the whole staging of the body on the beach would take some time, accounting for the establishment of rigor mortis …”
“Very good, John.”
“… so we can scratch the third scenario. Balance of probability, right?”
“We only have tox data for Adam but,” John made a note under all three names, with a question mark on Porter and Rushford, “there was ingestion of energy drinks, sufficiently late for some to remain in the stomach. Sherlock, these kids didn’t have their drinks at home, I don’t think so.”
“Excellent! Then …” Sherlock beamed at John and prompted him to continue.
John smiled back. “Then, Nicholls had his energy drink or drinks at the place where he met with others.”
“We don’t need the full tox screens for any of victims to proceed with the investigation. A full screen could show a metabolite of some drug used to overpower the boys, but it hardly matters for now. Nicholls was abducted or lured out from the place he was drinking with friends, taken somewhere where his killer could asphyxiate him, change his clothes, and position him to form a certain shape that would be stabilised by rigor mortis. Not just any shape, letters, S H.” Sherlock paced the small room with nervous energy. “He then transports the body to the beach, perhaps using a small boat as Joe Miller did with Danny Latimer. Latimer was murdered in the summer, a slender-built boy with dark curls and light blue eyes. The killer takes elements of Latimer’s murder, weaving in new ones that resonate with me. Fascinating.”
John felt queasy at exactly how fascinated Sherlock was. “Um, he must be choosing his victims carefully based on their physical attributes. How does he find them? Surely, he’s not hanging around teenagers. This must be a strong adult man; he wouldn’t exactly go unnoticed. Unless it’s someone they all know.”
“A strong adult man with a military history and connected to Moriarty. Hardly the type that would take time to befriend teenagers. To answer your question, we must find out where these kids are meeting.”
Ellie burst in the room at that moment. “The press are hounding us. They’re camped outside. Don’t use the main door, there’s a back exit.”
“Ellie, you look done in. Have a seat.” John worried at her flustered, angry look, fists clenched at her sides. Ellie ignored him, squinting instead at the whiteboard.
“We just finished interviewing Amanda Rushford, Peter’s mom. There’s some new leads.”
Sherlock perked up at this. Ellie relayed Mrs Rushford’s description of Peter’s late-night escapades. “We’ll be trying to contact the father to have his statement taken later today and find out where the boys were meeting. Maybe we’ll get something useful out of this.”
Sherlock clapped his hands and gave her a broad smile. “Well! This was most entertaining. John and I will go out, have some lunch and drive a bit around the coast. Oh, don’t worry, I’ve just rented a car, no need to take us anywhere.” John immediately identified Sherlock’s gleeful prattle as a sham to get them out of Broadchurch and find the people on Mycroft’s list.
“Uh, yeah, I told Sherlock the views are fantastic. Beautiful … hedgerows. God, I’m starving; lunch sounds lovely.”
“Yes, just some, huh, local reconnaissance.” Sherlock straightened his suit jacket and opened the door, intending to leave, “We’ll be in touch!” John snatched Mycroft’s printed email from the table and threw a fake smile at Ellie who stood with doubt plastered all over her face.
They found the back exit, free from reporters as Ellie had promised, and walked briskly out into sweltering heat and bright sunlight.
“What now, Sherlock?”
“We find the hacker. They will lead us to the murderer.”
Sherlock’s mobile pinged with a new message. Sherlock took his mobile out, frowned at the unknown sender and swept a thumb across the screen.
He stopped on his tracks, John almost bumping into him. “Sherlock?”
Sherlock turned the screen towards John. Bright characters popped against the black background:
‘DID YOU MISS ME?’
Chapter 6: Reluctant Alliances
The phenomenal beta services of hotshoeagain polished once again this story.
The midday heat felt suddenly too scorching, the ever-present smell of seaweed too salty. John felt like he was breathing sand. He looked up from Sherlock’s mobile, but instead of concern he found a grin.
“Our killer is getting nervous. Taunting me with Moriarty’s words.”
“You think it’s him? Could be a prank. The whole of England heard Moriarty’s message. Hoax or not.” John reminisced on the broadcast that interrupted Sherlock’s voyage into permanent exile earlier that year. A lifetime ago.
“Too much of a coincidence. The murderer wants me here for some reason.”
“Sherlock. Aren’t you a bit worried about being lured to Broadchurch by an assassin connected to Moriarty?” John tried to sound reasonable and collected, wondering whether he was the only one doing all the worrying again.
Sherlock’s grin slipped from his face. He pocketed his mobile and started walking away from the police building. They were heading to the car rental pick-up point in the centre of the town – John hoped they would be inconspicuous enough among summer tourists not to attract unwanted attention to their movements and bring the whole armada of journos after them.
After a couple of minutes, Sherlock finally replied in a hushed tone, still pacing. “I have to finish this. We will never have peace otherwise. I have to finish this, John.”
“Shredding the web! Cutting the threads! Eliminating Moriarty’s people!” John flinched at the unexpected outburst of anger. Sherlock had stopped abruptly again and was practically vibrating in anger, eyes stormy and deadly, focused on John. “Obviously, Mary was not the last connection!”
The two men were staring at each other, too close to comfort, something heavy and dark hanging between them. A young couple passing by flashed an alarmed look and walked faster.
“Let’s not make a scene here.”
“Yes, god forbid that Dr John Watson would look anything but prim and proper in public.”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
John practically spit the words at Sherlock. He was very aware that the conversation had gone from trapping a hacker to something which had little to do with Moriarty. “Tell me, Sherlock. What. What the hell do you want me to say. Except that I worry. That my biggest fear is to lose you again.” And there it was: John making his move, now waiting for Sherlock’s turn.
Sherlock blinked once, twice, and relaxed his posture. “I … overstepped. Forgive me, John. Your loyalty and friendship keep me right.” John was taken aback by the sudden softening in Sherlock but kept quiet. “I do not wish to play more games with Moriarty’s henchmen. Nothing good comes of it. My experience with those who were closest to him is that they are hand-picked psychopaths, relentless in their pursuit for power and influence. Cruel and determined.” He sighed, looking towards the horizon, bright sky interrupted by scattered fluffy clouds. “I am convinced the murderer is one of them, yet another frustrating leftover of Moriarty’s network. Mycroft and I … we worked hard to make sure there were no remains, but. Obviously, we have failed.”
A pang of distress hit John, as it usually did when he witnessed Sherlock’s self-deprecation. “You didn’t fail, Sherlock. They were many, well-organised, spread all over the world; you can’t, you can’t just, take everything on your back. It’s not down to you alone. Not anymore. I’m here.” He gave Sherlock a tentative smile. “I know I’m an idiot, but. If they’re coming for you. I’m here.”
Sherlock gave John a long look and an almost imperceptible nod and resumed walking.
Broadchurch did not have a car rental branch, but Sherlock had somehow convinced the nearest place to do a drop-off in the town centre. Both men had sighed in contentment when the AC quickly cooled down the car interior, and they were now heading west on the A35 in better spirits.
John munched on a Cornish pasty, watching the landscape transform. Soft rolling hills with grassy fields criss-crossed by hedgerows went almost all the way to the ocean along the coast, but where the road veered off inland they gave way to tree-lined waysides and an increasingly suburban character.
“I’m still not comfortable with doing this without telling Ellie. It’s the least we should have done for her.”
“Honiton is in Devon. Not their jurisdiction.” Sherlock drove smoothly through the thin traffic. No work commuters in the early afternoon shortened the drive to Honiton to a little over half an hour. They had narrowed down Mycroft’s list to four names of potential hackers still active in the area. The first address took them to a small dead-end street near the railway station in Honiton.
“Since when do you care about such technicalities?”
“In this case, they serve us well, since we get rid of our nannies.”
John rolled his eyes at Sherlock’s derision. “Ellie is well-intentioned–”
“Yes, I’m aware of your good intentions towards Detective Sergeant Miller–”
“She’s friendly and helpful–”
“Honestly, are you jealous? You’re the one wanting me to flirt with her.”
John cursed internally at his own outburst.
Sherlock cleared his throat. “How absurd, John, jealous of what. Stop being irrational and tell me where I should turn off from this blasted road.”
John tapped his mobile screen a bit more forcefully than needed to get the instructions for navigation into town.
It turned out to be a short trip. Mr Tuckman was skilled, but more inclined to orchestrate DDoS attacks against governmental websites than deleting phone records. Mr Tuckman was also not the bravest of souls and quickly spilled his latest criminal activities when Sherlock loomed a bit too close with his trademarked murderous glower.
They were walking back to the car fifteen minutes later. “What’s next on our list?”
“We might as well try the address in Exeter; it’s the farthest from Broadchurch, but we are halfway there now.”
John picked up the address and punched it into his mobile. “Ready when you are.”
Ellie sat in the case room, picking absently at an egg sandwich and going through Peter Rushford’s phone records. Laura had been very efficient in terrorising the phone company to release data quickly. It was not very logically organised (why didn’t they use one format for at least the same type of record? Ridiculous.), but it was all there.
Alec stepped quietly into the room, holding a Styrofoam box and a water glass.
“Mind if I sit?”
Ellie gestured distractedly. “Be my guest.”
“Those the phone records?”
“Yes.” She continued to browse the printed sheets, making notes here and there with a red pen, not lifting her gaze. Alec sat down across from her and picked a chip from the box.
“Where are our consultants?”
“They went out. To see the sights or something.” Ellie circled a date.
“To see the sights.” Alec sounded doubtful.
Ellie put the pen pointedly down on the table, clasped her hands and glared at him. “Of course they’re not off to see the sights. They are off to do some investigating of their own without us. I don’t know what, and I don’t know where. And since I’m not their mummy, I did not ask either. And why should I? They come all the way from London to help on a case that has us scratching our heads, that turns out to have to do with Sherlock himself. They are therefore personally invested in finding out who is killing these kids, and all they get from us is the cold shoulder.”
Alec dropped his gaze and took a deep breath, fiddling with a corner of a paper. “You’re right, Miller.”
Ellie was so surprised at Alec’s quick concession she almost choked on a piece of her sandwich. “Sorry, what? I’m right?”
“You are right. I am sorry.”
“Are you alright? Coming down with a fever? I thought I heard you saying I was right and apologising in the same sentence.”
Alec pouted and gave her a look. “No need for sarcasm, Miller.”
“Fine. I’m right and you’re sorry. What’s going to change?”
Ellie abandoned her half-eaten sandwich and abstained from further needling Alec, not when he was willing to do concessions. She stood in front of the whiteboard, fingers trailing the complicated network of names, arrows, locations and dates. “We must know for sure where these kids were meeting.”
“Vickers is trying to reach Pete’s dad. He was not answering his mobile. It will be hours before he’s back in Broadchurch. In any case, we can’t just casually tell him ‘Hi, your son was murdered’ on the phone. We need to bring him in. The car park on the west cliffs is a good starting point, though; we should send Brian there.”
“Sherlock and John noted here,” she tapped on the board, “that all murders occurred on early Sundays. We knew this already, of course, but … it makes sense that they were going out to party. Meet with others.”
“It fits with Pete Rushford, but not quite with Adam and Simon. Both had good school grades, were quiet kids, popular with friends …”
Ellie turned to Alec with a forlorn expression. “You and I have teenage kids, Alec. How much do you know about what they are doing?” She shook her head and focused again on the whiteboard. Something about the timeline, how the bodies were found …
Suddenly, pieces fell into place. Ellie stiffened and whispered, “The timeline. The transport.”
“Miller?” Alec perked up at Ellie’s change of posture.
“That’s what our consulting detectives were noting here, see? The boys meet somewhere after midnight. This ‘somewhere’ is perhaps near the west cliffs as Mrs Rushford said. They drank some drink or other, maybe smoke a fag, hang around with other kids, make out, whatever.”
“Yes, there is a rather tight timeline for events to happen. The boys were abducted at some point early in the evening, taken somewhere for changing their clothes and … bending them into letters while rigor mortis set in. Then taken to the beach.”
“Don’t you see?” Ellie faced Alec, waving her arms in agitation. “It’s a very tight timeline! It’s not a local person doing these killings – they are connected to Sherlock, not to Danny. This is a small town–”
“Which means a big man not from around here could be noticed–”
“Which means he is not living in the town and probably is driving a large enough vehicle to conceal a body and change their clothes!”
Alec brightened and stood. “Like a, a, a van. Something spacious and easy to clean. With military precision. And if the kids were meeting in the car park–”
“The killer could have been parked there! One moment of distraction, or some way of luring a boy nearer–”
“And a strong man with military training would quickly overcome his victim. Asphyxiation takes no time; the boys would have lost their senses in less than half a minute. He could drag the unconscious victim into the van and finish the job in there. Nobody would notice! Oh, excellent, Miller!”
Alec and Ellie were now grinning at each other. “We’re not so bad with deductions ourselves, are we, Miller.”
“Not so bad at all, sir,” she quipped. “Although …”
“How are we going to find this van?”
“How are we going to find this van.”
They turned to the whiteboard, a sudden sombre mood contrasting with the bright afternoon sun seeping through half closed window blinds.
Sherlock cursed under his breath while trying to find his way through Exeter. “Is it possible to drive at all through this godforsaken city?”
“Sorry, the address is in the centre, and yeah, there’s a lot of pedestrian and bus-only zones. Turn left here. We can try to find somewhere to park behind the Guildhall,” he pointed a distracted thumb towards the block hosting the shopping centre, a dubious mix of faux Hellenic and modern architecture that provoked a grimace from Sherlock.
“Pedestrian is a fair description of this place,” Sherlock spat, turning the wheel. He found a parking spot that John doubted was legal (‘It’s Sunday, John, the streets are empty, no one cares’), and the two men strode to the address on South Street.
“The hacking business must be going well; it must be expensive to live here.” John noticed that they were near the old cathedral, tourists taking photos from all angles or lazing on the surrounding patches of grass.
“What? Student? How can a student afford to live across the cathedral?”
“There are student accommodations spread all over the city. Exeter hosts a large university, and Ms Cora Jackson, better known as Jax, is taking her master’s in Computer Science. A rather good disguise for a hacker, don’t you think?”
John hummed in agreement. They stopped in front of their goal when they spotted a twenty-something woman slowing her pace towards them some ten metres away. She widened her eyes in recognition when she saw Sherlock and turned to run.
“No! Wait! We just want to talk!” John tried to reason as he started after her, Sherlock on his heels. They caught up easily and John held her right arm. “We just want to talk, Jax.”
Jax squirmed, trying to get away from John’s firm grip. “Let me go! I’ll scream if you don’t. There’ll be police here in no time. Perverts!”
Sherlock gave her a once-over. “Hmm, I don’t think so. Unless you’d like them to find the small bag of white powder that you’re carrying. Well, with luck it’s too small an amount for you to do time, but maybe we don’t need to find that out.”
Jax instinctively lowered her left hand to her back jeans pocket. “How did you know?”
“The new semester hasn’t started, but you are living in your student housing. You have a Cornish accent, so you could be spending the rest of your summer holidays with your family in, hmm, Newquay? No, Penzance, not far away at all from here, but you chose not to. Why not? Because your dealer is here, you have no contacts in Penzance, so no extended absences from Exeter. Also, your family would not be happy to find out about your unsavoury habit, would they? You’re wearing a long-sleeved jacket in scorching heat – to hide track marks. You’ve been doing so for a while – no tan on your forearms.” Sherlock paused for a couple of seconds and proceeded in a softer tone, “You’re also displaying clear signs of needing a fix soon. So how about we come in, have a little chat, and leave you to do your business?”
Jax hung her head in defeat and picked out her house keys. John relaxed his grip on her arm and risked a glance at Sherlock. Usually, he would find a blank expression on Sherlock’s face when they were dealing with witnesses, but now Sherlock observed Jax with a mix of curiosity and something akin to sorrow.
It was thankfully cooler indoors. The flat was small but tidy, a typical student bedsit with pastel-coloured wallpaper, a single bed in a corner, a desk against the opposite wall and a mini-kitchen in the corner by the door. Two large computer screens stood conspicuously on the desk, and a computer tower hummed quietly under it.
Jax sat heavily on the bed and gestured absently towards the desk chair. John took it; Sherlock chose to stand, facing her.
“You recognised me; that was why you tried to dash. So, you knew I meant trouble. You’ve been deleting phone records in West Dorset, asked to do so at precise dates and times. By whom?”
Jax looked up in surprise. “How did you know about the phone records?”
“That’s not an answer to my question.”
John intervened in what he hoped was a less glacial tone, “Jax, do you know why you were asked to delete those records? In those precise dates?”
“Look,” she licked her lips nervously, “I don’t know anything, okay? There was a voice on the phone, and some money in my bank account later. I don’t ask questions.”
Sherlock sighed. “Did that voice have a name?”
Jax hesitated, and Sherlock bellowed, “The name!”
John snorted. “What, like the actor?”
“It was obvious that was not his name, but like I said – I don’t ask questions. He could have told me he was the Pope. I don’t care.”
Sherlock narrowed his eyes at her. “And you were not the least bit curious? Money being transferred from an untraceable account, a false name behind a phone call …” He started pacing predatorily in front of the bed, eyes boring into the young woman’s. “You’re a bright young lady. You take top marks in every course, don’t you? A master’s degree in Computer Science, really, as if you needed a diploma on the wall to prove yourself. You have been a top black-hat hacker since you were sixteen – in fact, you are so bored out of your mind that you turned to a cocaine habit to make things a bit brighter, endure those stretches of time between jobs.” He stopped and relaxed his posture. “You were curious, so you did some digging, didn’t you?”
Jax dropped her head in her hands, elbows on knees, and exhaled tiredly. “Yeah, I … couldn’t help it. It’s like an itch, you know? I had to scratch it. It was information that I could get, so why not?” She looked up again at Sherlock. “I didn’t look into the bank account because there should be a payment coming in tomorrow. I was told three payments on three Mondays, tomorrow is the last one. Instructions were to clean the records of all mobile usage on West Dorset, from Saturday night to Sunday on three specific dates.”
“All immediately preceding your payments.”
“Yeah. Um, so I asked if he really wanted everything out because it would look weird. I mean if he wanted specific stuff deleted I could have done it, no problem. But he was like ‘no, take everything out, make it look like an outage or something.’ You can’t make it look like an outage the way I had to do it but whatever, it was done, and he’s happy, since I’ve been getting my money.”
“So, did you get information about him in some other way?” John asked gently. Jax was clearly edgy now, the cravings mixing with their unwelcome presence and their difficult questions.
“I traced his phone call. I trace all incoming phone calls from unknown numbers. It was a fake mobile number, like a burner phone, ya know? But the call was being redirected through that number from his real phone.” She brightened while explaining. John smiled kindly at her – she was reminding him of Sherlock, thoughts too fast and life too boring, trying to drown the noise in work or chemical relief.
Sherlock’s voice interrupted John’s train of thoughts. “The name, Jax.”
She bit her lip and took a deep breath. “His name is Sebastian Moran.”
Chapter 7: A Wolf at the Door
As you may have guessed, I’m ignoring the existence of Lord Moran in “The Empty Hearse”. Artistic license and all that. Chapter title shamelessly taken from the Radiohead song.
Thank you to hotshoeagain for beta'ing, you keep me right.
You may notice that there's a defined chapter count now. Thank you all who are hanging around for this ride!
Sherlock froze. He froze so perfectly John wondered for a moment if he had stopped breathing altogether.
Jax continued, unaware of the reaction the name ‘Sebastian Moran’ had provoked in Sherlock. “Long story short, I dug a bit about who this guy was, and well. I decided that I was not that curious after all. Discharge from the army after something happened in Afghanistan, then some shady connections for some years, and then he just disappeared. Until now.”
“No.” Sherlock shivered and turned away from Jax and John, unfocused eyes flitting over the flat. His voice had gone up an octave but was down to a whisper.
John was instantly alarmed. “Sherlock? You okay? You recognise the name?” The last sentence was more a statement than a question.
Sherlock swallowed visibly, shaking off his initial shock, and whirled around towards Jax. “Does he know that you know? It’s important, Jax, think.”
“I … no, I’m sure he doesn’t. I didn’t do anything, I just found out about him and let it be.”
“It is very important that it remains so, or you are a dead woman.”
Jax furiously blinked away tears brought on by Sherlock’s ominous tone. “What do you want me to do? I saw his name connected to that Moriarty guy, and I read about the story between Moriarty and yourself. You’re here asking questions about Moran. He will know I ratted him out.”
Sherlock hung his head and closed his eyes, shoulders sagging, and spoke quietly, “Yes, he will. I’m sorry.”
John clasped his hands loosely and bent forward on his chair, speaking softly. “Jax, we have reasons to believe that this guy is behind the murders of three young boys in Broadchurch. I suppose you’ve heard about this; it’s all over the news.” She nodded slowly at him with widened eyes. “He is a very dangerous man. You have figured this out on your own, so. It would be best if you made sure he does not find you.”
“Aren’t you going to make me tell the police?”
John exchanged a silent agreement with Sherlock and shrugged. “We didn’t get your contact info from very proper channels anyway.”
Sherlock crouched in front of Jax, scrutinising her. “Jax. Take the money from your account first thing tomorrow and disappear. Use the money up, tickets, new clothes, change your appearance, whatever it takes. Do not leave a trace. You know how to do this.” He dropped his gaze to the crook of her left arm. “Maybe not spend it in chemical distractions. Your arm – it’s been harmed enough, hasn’t it?” Sherlock slowly reached for her left wrist and drew the sleeve of the jacket gently up, exposing yellowing bruises in the unmistakable shape of fingers. She flinched minutely but let him continue. He spoke tenderly, “You’re not running to Exeter for your dealer, you’re running away from Cornwall. There’s always something.” Sherlock lowered the sleeve carefully and released her wrist. “You’ll tire of running one day. That noise in your head? It goes away when you do something you love. There’s always going to be a better path for someone as gifted as you are.”
Jax nodded silently, eyes glistening again with unshed tears. Realisation and fear crossed her features – John felt sorry for this girl, her actions having concealed a murderer. She could be next if Moran decided she knew too much. Watching the scene before him, John silently lamented how few people knew Sherlock beyond the aloof consulting-detective façade – how caring, protective, and tender he could be.
“Okay. Okay, I’ll do that. Um. Thank you.” Jax nervously pulled down her cuffs to cover her wrists, sniffing and blinking tears away.
Sherlock stretched his right hand towards her, open palm up. “One last thing before we leave.”
She hesitated, then slowly reached for her back pocket and took out a small clear zip lock bag, containing a fine cotton-white powder. Sherlock wordlessly handed it over to John, who took it and strode to the sink to dump the contents, running water until no traces were left.
Sherlock stood up, straightening his suit jacket, gave Jax one last look and a nod, and walked out. John threw an apologetic goodbye at her and followed.
The heat outdoors hit them like a wave. John found a rubbish bin on their way back to the car and disposed of the empty bag.
“Don’t you think Mycroft could help her? Give her another identity, or something?” John was not comfortable in leaving Jax unprotected, now that it was clear that she was not out of danger of being betrayed by her contractor.
Sherlock hummed in disagreement. “And effectively imprisoning her in a life of constant surveillance? Until now, MI5 kept a weather eye on her activities because she did not cause too much damage and likely was occasionally useful. Drawing their attention to Jax in the midst of this case will guarantee her permanent captivity, either literal or by means of coercion. No, Mycroft should not get to know anything about her whereabouts.”
“He will find out sooner or later that she’s disappeared. He did give us her name.”
“By then, it will be too late to find her.”
“That was good, Sherlock.”
Sherlock glanced at John, squinting his eyes against the strong sunlight. “We could hardly leave her in possession of a Class A drug, John.”
“You know that’s not what I’m talking about. You were kind and considerate to Jax when you realised that she was going through a lot.”
Sherlock took out the car key and fiddled briefly with it before unlocking the car. “I’ve had a good teacher.”
They sat in the car. John rubbed the back of his neck, not finding the words to reply, while Sherlock started the ignition and drove off, cursing again the one-way roads and general crookedness of Exeter’s city centre.
John sighed, deciding a change of subject was necessary. “Who’s Sebastian Moran?” John observed how Sherlock tensed at the name.
“It’s a long story.”
“It’s a long drive back. So. Tell me.”
Sherlock noted the sign to A30 and took a deep breath. “I last heard of Colonel Sebastian Moran in Serbia.”
John closed his eyes and groaned. This was indeed going to be a long ride.
It was a short drive to the car park on the west cliffs. Alec was thankful to be getting out of the station for some fresh air after the early afternoon’s press conference. Chief Superintendent Elaine Jenkinson had hardly answered any questions from the reporters, excusing the lack of information on the need to protect the ongoing investigation. Alec had quietly seethed – talking to the press was not something he enjoyed, but neither did he approve of standing there in silence like a puppet while Jenkinson parroted rehearsed lines. Afterwards, he had found Ellie and convinced a crabby, still sleep-deprived Brian to drop whatever he was doing in the lab and do some more on-site forensics.
“What are we looking for now?” Brian sighed loudly.
“Any traces of a van or similar vehicle that could have been driving in and out of this park in the last twenty-four hours. Any traces of a gathering of people, in this case evidence that kids have been hanging around here.” Alec surveyed the scene. The car park was large enough for about a hundred cars, and was very close to the top of the highest hill, which ended abruptly in a cliff. It was not the highest point on the Jurassic coastline – that being the famous Golden Cap, clearly visible from their location – but it was high enough to attract tourists chasing the perfect sunset photo. The sea glimmered under the afternoon sun, summer heat waning in the salt-scented breeze.
Brian stared at them. “This is asphalted.”
“Yeah, well,” Ellie flashed an exaggerated grin, “you’re good, so.”
“Flattery will get you nowhere.”
Alec shifted impatiently from one foot to the other. “Quit flirting and get cracking.”
They circled the area, scrutinising bits here and there. Despite being a popular spot, the place was almost empty – there wasn’t much to do up there except admire the view and walk around the top of the hill, so most people drove there later in the day for the sunset. There was no merciful shade, either, to shelter from the scorching midday sun.
Ellie examined tire marks but quickly became frustrated. “There’s too many tracks here to make any sense.”
“It’s been nice weather, probably a fair number of visitors to watch the scenery.” Alec stood from his crouching position near a corner of the car park. He found two cans of fizzy drinks, one a popular brand of cola and the other an energy drink. “I suppose some of this rubbish could come from kids hanging around here at night, but in fairness it could also come from sloppy tourists. Although there’s a bit more here,” he pointed at a patch just outside of the last parking place, over the short wooden fence, “and oh! Footprints!”
Brian approached and looked over his shoulder. “Hmm, it’s clay/sand mix out here, but the weather has been very dry. I doubt we can gather any details from those prints. I can try.” He took photos, and the cans were placed in evidence bags.
Ellie felt more dispirited by the minute. She assessed the scene; aside from a few cars and a couple of tourists taking photos of the sea, there wasn’t much more to gather. If a van had been parked here, it would be hard to prove. “I don’t think we can learn anything new here today.”
“I’ll stay behind for these footprints while there’s daylight, and later I’ll compare the brand of that drink with stomach contents,” offered Brian. “The DNA results from the hair we found? They’re going to take a couple of days anyway.”
“Thanks, Brian, you’re a jewel. Alec?”
“Yeah, I’m coming. Brian, ring Vickers when you’re done here.” Brian acknowledged this, crouched at the spot where they had found footprints.
The drive back was quiet. Ellie sat behind the wheel and pondered what Sherlock and John might be up to. Not faffing about looking at the sights, that was for sure.
Alec interrupted her musings with a similar line of thought. “We should find Batman and Robin; I don’t want them to be doing police work without us knowing. And I’m thinking we should do a proper interview with Mr Holmes. Whoever is killing these boys knows him, therefore Holmes knows this guy.”
Ellie was incredulous. “Don’t you think if he knew who it is, he would have told us by now?”
Alec gave her a look and rolled his eyes. “It’s Sherlock Holmes we’re talking about here. I asked Vickers to find a list of convicts arrested due to Holmes and recently released from prison. Mr Holmes thought that was a waste of time.”
“The list was very short because most are still serving time. She’s still following up a couple of names last time I heard, but for now it also looks like a dead end.”
“So, Sherlock thought it was a waste of time and you still went ahead and did it.”
Alec bristled in irritation. “What the hell was I supposed to do, Miller?! Not follow every avenue at our disposal to find out who this creep is? Because Sherlock Holmes thought it was a bad idea? Tell me: if he hadn’t been here saying what a terrible idea it was to follow procedure, would you have not done the same?”
Ellie bit her lower lip. She had to agree – naturally one would be remiss not to comb through Sherlock’s enemies. “So, you have decided that the murders are indeed related to Sherlock, after all? Last time I heard, you were not so convinced.” She would not hide the acerbity in her comment. Alec’s whole reaction to Sherlock’s presence was verging on childish: on one hand they needed the help, and the killer seemed to be beckoning for Sherlock’s involvement; on the other hand, Alec was–
Realisation suddenly hit her. “You’re insecure because you feel insufficient, innit? That the Yard sends the guy that solves their toughest cases. They sent the big guns from London and you–”
“That’s quite enough, Miller,” Alec interrupted with a snarl, looking pointedly away from her.
Ellie huffed. “You’re a good cop. And we’re a good team. And we’re better with Sherlock and John on board. You can’t be selfish. A decent detective can’t be selfish. Can you drill this into that hard head of yours?”
Alec didn’t reply but Ellie saw how his shoulders sagged while she pulled over. She didn’t park at her usual spot, lest they be surrounded by reporters. It was getting to that time of the afternoon where families would be collecting their children from the beaches and rushing them for the evening bath and supper.
They quietly slipped around the police building, absorbed in their own thoughts.
The traffic on A35 had picked up, holidaymakers and weekenders returning home in the late Sunday afternoon. But this was not the reason why the one-hour drive back to Broadchurch felt like a small eternity to John.
Sherlock did not bring up his time in Serbia unless absolutely necessary. It had taken a long time for John to learn the unabridged version of the events – and this only after he witnessed Sherlock suffering a flashback, a terrifying hallucination of his time in captivity. That such episodes occurred with some frequency had been a painful admission for Sherlock. John helped him the way he could: he convinced Sherlock to see a therapist. The two men agreed to not touch the subject again within the walls of 221B, their sanctuary to lick proverbial wounds and find peace of mind. And if some of the darkness had since been lifted, John wasn’t less vigilant about what could trigger Sherlock into drowning himself again in those memories.
It was therefore with no small amount of trepidation that he listened to this new account of his time in Serbia.
“As I’ve mentioned before, I heard … voices, names being whispered while I was in captivity. There were often references to a ‘Colonel’. I deduced ‘the Colonel’ was someone high in their hierarchy, someone they feared. As you know, Mycroft went in to recover me, and his team did the clean-up. I was never satisfied with this tabula rasa approach, and neither was Mycroft – we feared lost intelligence. But the activities of that cell ceased with its elimination, and so we assumed that it had been cleanly cut.” He paused to collect his thoughts. “I. I became unsure whether I had heard the title correctly. I was rather convinced that I had. But.”
John recalled their conversation about Sherlock doubting his otherwise photographic memory and felt a renewed wave of sadness. “But now you know for sure that you were right. You didn’t make up any of it; it was not a hallucination. Your brilliant brain retained it all.”
Sherlock hid a small smile under the pretence of scratching his left ear. “Yes, well. It’s. All a bit disorganised. First, I tried to lock it all away, and then with the, um. The therapy. I tried to recall some things, but. Even then, I wasn’t sure what was real.” He took a deep breath and raised his chin, focusing on the road. “There’s a back story, long before my, er, leave of absence from London.
“When Moriarty started circling us, Mycroft was not idle. You know part of the story – of Mycroft telling my life story to Moriarty in exchange for intelligence. He found out about a Sebastian Moran, an ex-army colonel, apparently one of Moriarty’s most trusted people. But Moran seemed to move like a ghost. For a while, my brother thought Moran was not a real person. You have not reacted to the name, so you haven’t crossed paths with Moran.”
John shook his head. “No. Jax said he was in Afghanistan and that he was discharged, but the military machine is quite big. If we weren’t on the same tour, then chances would be low that we would ever meet. Even if he was high-ranked. I suppose I could have heard about him, but it sounded like it was a dishonourable discharge – it could have been quieted down.”
“You are correct. The little Jax uncovered was not unknown to me – Mycroft found out that much. Moran is a sniper, an excellent marksman. As such, he assassinated a high number of Taliban warriors. But he abused his position. The discharge was due to him killing innocent civilians, including young children, where there was no clear indication that they were working with the enemy.”
“Quite so. He was found mentally unsuitable to stay – avoided Court Martial by the skin of his teeth. Too much of a psychopath to handle a rifle. This was in 2010.”
John shut his eyes briefly and sighed. “Funny how one has to become detached to function as a sniper but cannot fall into full psychopathy. Never understood where the line was.”
“It’s a spectrum. And the terms ‘psychopathy’ and ‘sociopathy’ are argued in the scientific literature nowadays.”
John snapped his head in surprise towards Sherlock. Here was someone who called himself a ‘high-functioning sociopath’. While John had seen through these claims, he had never heard Sherlock question this definition himself. “Have you been rethinking the whole ‘sociopath’ thing then?”
Sherlock sniffed. “I acknowledge that the term might have been inaccurate as a proper descriptor of my idiosyncrasies. One cannot ignore the weight of scientific studies. You know I value reason above everything.”
“Of course you do.” John smiled, looking to the road ahead. They were approaching Honiton again, although this time they would take the Honiton Bypass to avoid the centre of the town and to proceed directly to A35. “But anyway. Moran. He went back to the UK because of the discharge. Well, I’m assuming he’s a British citizen.”
“Correct. And that’s when his whereabouts start to be erratic. He had a basic pension but also additional income of unidentified origin in the form of sporadic payments. Large sporadic payments. Quite typical of remuneration for high-paying individual jobs. Given his skill set …”
“… He was working as a sniper for Moriarty. An assassin. Jesus.” Recognition dawned on John and he felt lightheaded. “Do you think. He was at. The pool. Or. Maybe he was one of the snipers that. That were threatening Mrs Hudson, Lestrade and, and myself?”
Sherlock tightened his grip on the wheel and swallowed visibly. “Those that threatened the three of you were taken care of. But at the pool. We. We can’t know for sure. It’s possible.” He took a ragged breath. “It does not matter any longer. What matters is that he disappeared; not even Mycroft could trace him. Not many people have the capacity to conceal someone to that degree from Mycroft.”
“But Moriarty could.”
“Moriarty could. Which explains why Moran resurfaces now. He’s not working for Moriarty, Moriarty is dead.” Sherlock spat out the last sentence as if needing to convince himself. “I didn’t make the connection that the ‘Colonel’ in Serbia could be him until now.”
“Maybe Moran is carrying out some sort of revenge for Moriarty’s death? Out of loyalty to his former boss?”
“Hmm. Why not just a well-placed bullet in my head? Why would a psychopath be loyal to the man? And why now?”
John cringed at the thought of this Moran guy aiming a rifle at Sherlock and pressing the trigger, snuffing out his life in an instant. He raked nervous fingers through his hair.
Sherlock continued, “There’s something I’m missing. He’s playing a game that lacks Moriarty’s finesse but equals in cruelty.”
John couldn’t reply immediately as he was trying to calm himself down, taking a few deep breaths and focusing on the road ahead. They were cruising through the last of East Devon, with the now familiar green hills leading into the Jurassic Coast.
“This is not a game, Sherlock. It’s psychological terror. It’s murder of young boys for no other reason than to attract you to some trap so that he eventually kills you too!”
“Nonsense, John, as we have concluded, he could have killed me at any point. He’s not trying to frame me for the murders either – as I said, he lacks Moriarty’s elegance. His paltry attempt at artistry is worthy of the plot in one of those horrid crime novels you insist in rotting your brain with.”
John acknowledged Sherlock’s attempt at injecting some humour in his answer to defuse his worries. “Fantastic. I suppose Moran passed Dzundza’s course on Asphyxiation for Beginners, excelled in Marksmanship for the Modern Murderer but failed Moriarty’s advanced course on Sophisticated Crime Masterminds.”
Sherlock lifted an eyebrow at him in amusement. “Marksmanship for the Modern Murderer? That was quite the alliteration. I’m impressed, John, is this a skill you developed for your book?”
John could not help the nervous chuckle that bubbled out of his chest. There was probably a nugget of truth there – John had been busy in transposing and extending some of his blog entries into a proper book. He was jokingly calling the draft ‘The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’, which never failed to prompt a theatrical eye-roll from Sherlock.
Whether he could or wanted to tell the current tale was for now unknown. “How are we going to find this guy, Sherlock?”
“We’re not. He brought us here. He will find us.”
John shook his head in exasperation and let his eyes roam over the scenery, thoughts scattering over the hundred possible ways all this could go wrong.
Ellie had just stepped in the building when her mobile rang. She looked down at the lock screen as if it was venomous.
“Oh god. It’s Beth.”
Alec frowned. “I thought you were on good terms now?”
“We are, but …” She answered the call. “Hi, Beth.”
“Is it him?” Beth Latimer’s voice shook with rage through the speaker.
“Beth, you know we can’t comment on an ongoing investigation–”
“Don’t give me that crap, Ellie! Is. It. Him?”
“This has nothing to do with Danny, Beth, please believe me.”
“That’s not what they’re saying. They’re saying the boys all look like Danny. And that they were all found in the same beach. Mark said this boy was on the same spot as Danny. How can you tell me this has nothing to do with my son?”
Ellie stood by a doorway and closed her eyes. She could hear Beth’s panic in that last sentence, mirroring her own doubts. Alec silently mouthing ‘Don’t’ and gesturing for her to hang up.
“Beth, I’m so sorry, I really can’t say more. I have to go. These families also lost their boys, they want answers–”
“Like you would know anything about losing your boy.” Beth’s words cut through Ellie right before hanging up.
Ellie looked vacantly at her mobile screen.
“Miller?” Alec sounded concerned, hesitantly extending a hand to her. “Are you alright?
“No.” She resumed walking.
“Sir? Peter Rushford’s dad is just in.” Laura nodded towards a chair in a quiet corner of the main office where a man sat, haggard and staring off into the distance.
Ellie and Alec exchanged a quick look and stepped towards him.
“Mr Rushford? I’m Detective Inspector Alec Hardy and this is Detective Sergeant Ellie Miller. We’re. We’re terribly sorry about Pete.”
The man slowly raised his head and locked sad eyes with Alec’s, holding his gaze in silence. Ellie stretched a gentle hand to his elbow. “Shall we move somewhere more private, Mr Rushford? We’d like a word with you.”
They sat in the same arrangement as in that morning’s interview with Mrs Rushford, starting with the necessary regretful statements about the whole situation and the usual obligatory questions about Jonathan Rushford’s whereabouts. Anxiety and grief tinted his answers, but Ellie knew they had to push on. “Mr Rushford, we know that Pete went out sometimes at night against your will, and that on one occasion you followed him. Could you tell us a bit more about that?”
He was momentarily surprised by Ellie’s knowledge of that incident. “Oh, my wife told you that, I suppose. Yes, I arrived late one night. My job keeps odd hours, you see. And Amanda told me Pete had just gone out again. I was so mad at him.” He shook his head, sadness and regret on his face. “So, I decided to look for him. I drove around. And then, I saw this group of kids on that car park near the top of the west cliffs, you know? That one people go for the sights. And there he was.”
Alec intervened. “How many kids would you say were there?”
“I don’t know… eight, ten? Teenagers, you know, hanging around, some smoking, some drinking.”
“Did you recognize any of them? Apart from Peter, that is?”
“I think I did, some classmates, yeah. Can’t recall their names. I was seeing red by then, hard to remember.”
“Understandable. Please continue; did you drive in the car park?”
“Yeah, I went in and parked, got out. The kids were looking like they were caught in the act, you know? And Pete saw me directly. I just grabbed his arm and dragged him back home. He didn’t even say a thing.”
“When did this happen?”
“Uh.” Mr Rushford sniffed and looked up to the ceiling as if the answer were written there. “Let’s see, it was … late June? Yes, the last weekend in June, a Saturday night.”
Ellie looked up the calendar on her mobile. “That would be the twenty-seventh of June, then?”
“I suppose so, yeah.”
Alec leaned forward on his seat and clasped his hands loosely. “Mr Rushford, we understand that this might be difficult to recall, but that night, in that car park. Were there any other vehicles parked? Of any type?”
“Um … I– I don’t know.”
“Please, just. Think a little bit about it. Close your eyes and try to picture the scene in your head?”
He sighed but complied, closing his eyes. “It was … almost empty. It was very late, I think past one a.m. already. Maybe later. There were bikes near the kids; they were near the fence on the side of the sea, you know? Um, there were a couple of cars parked. Oh, and a van. I remember the van because I thought it was a bit strange.”
Alec and Ellie perked up simultaneously. Alec clasped his hands harder, trying to not sound too enthusiastic. “Why do you say it was strange? Can you describe the van to us?
“It said something about repairs. I just had a passing thought that it was late for a handyman to be out there.” He opened his eyes. “Do you think this is important?”
Ellie looked kindly at him. “Anything could be important, Mr Rushford, any small detail.”
Mr Rushford shook his head. “That’s all I recall. I’m sorry.”
Ellie felt her phone buzzing and hoped it wasn’t Beth again. She whispered in Alec’s ear. “It’s my sister. I have to take this.”
He nodded, and Ellie exited the room, leaving Alec to wrap up the interview.
Ellie had just finished the phone call with her sister when Alec joined her outside his office. “There wasn’t much more he could tell us. Light-coloured van, probably white, with black printing, or at least dark-coloured. It was dark, so who knows. Something with ‘repairs’, obviously no details about number plate.”
“I’m sorry, but I have to pick up the kids. I’ll call John on my way home, ask him what he and Sherlock are up to. We have to get a list of Pete’s classmates; they might have seen the van.”
“Okay. We have to contact the school, no chance of doing that until tomorrow morning. I’ll look into the van; could be stolen property. How many businesses could possibly have the word ‘repairs’ in their name?” Alec gave her a sarcastic smile.
Ellie sized him up. Alec was visibly tired, but a nervous energy vibrated from him, probably fuelled by the adrenaline rush of this new lead. “That’s going to take a while. You should get some rest too, sir.”
He waved a dismissive hand. “The van, first. Go home, Miller.”
Sherlock was driving the final stretch on the A35 around Bridport and turning to Broadchurch when John’s phone rang.
“What are you boys up to? Seen enough hedgerows for one day?”
“I’m sorry we left like that, Ellie.” John sighed and glanced at Sherlock, who gave him an almost imperceptible ‘go ahead’ nod. “As a matter of fact, we do have some news. A name. Sebastian Moran, ex-military. Look, we’re just arriving in Broadchurch. Can we take this in person?”
“Oh! Damn, I’m leaving now to pick up the kids.” John heard her slamming her car door. “Tell Hardy, he’s still at work. We also have a new lead – a van was sighted in the car park during one of the kids’ gatherings. I have to start driving now. Can you be at my place at seven for dinner? My sister made too much roast. I want to know details.”
“Alright, talk to you later.” John pocketed his mobile and turned to Sherlock. “What do you think?”
“I think it’s time to convince our dear Detective Inspector once and for all that we need to collaborate.”
Chapter 8: An Eye for an Eye
“Sir.” Laura stood in Alec’s doorway. “About Joe Miller.”
Alec promptly raised bespectacled eyes from searching through database after database. “Did you find him?”
“Um. Well. Yes and no.”
Alec took off his reading glasses and rubbed his eyes tiredly. “Please, Vickers, it’s been a long weekend for us all.”
“Sorry, sir. What I mean is I found out that Mr Miller bought train tickets from Liverpool, where he is currently living, down to Weymouth via London, last Friday. Unclear how he travelled to Broadchurch but most likely he took a bus; there’s no registry on car rentals under his name.”
“That’s one hell of a long journey.”
She nodded. “He has return tickets to Liverpool for today, and according to what he booked he should have already departed. He did all the booking online, which made it easier to track the purchases.”
Alec waited for the other shoe to drop. “But.”
“Tickets were collected, but it’s unknown at this point if he actually boarded the train. He has a work shift tomorrow morning that he’ll be sure to miss if he’s not on his way north, though. I thought I’d try to get in contact with the train operator and see if a conductor could give us a positive ID.”
Alec threw his head back, stared at the ceiling, and considered this. “We can’t have the conductor walking up to a sitting passenger and asking for identification on behalf of the police. He’s not a formal suspect. He’s not a convict. But we need to account for his movements.” He straightened himself on his chair. “Send a photo to help them identify Joe from a distance. We can’t risk another public scandal involving him. And go home afterwards, it’s late.”
Laura excused herself and left. Alec got up from his chair and moved into the case room. He surveyed the small space, approached the whiteboard, picked up a pen and started writing.
John and Sherlock came in the room at that moment. John cleared his throat. “Evening.”
Alec looked briefly over his shoulder. “Ah, there you are. Was wondering if you had gone back to London after all.”
Sherlock threw himself on a chair, steepled his fingers and closed his eyes in silence. John answered, “We have a name for your murderer. We think. Sebastian Moran.”
Alec spun around and gave John his full attention. “Go on.”
John lifted a surprised eyebrow at Alec’s eagerness but proceeded to give an account of their meeting with Jax. He suppressed her exact identity and whereabouts and how they came across her name in the first place. “It’s classified,” John explained ruefully, “and her life could be endangered once Moran knows she helped us.”
“Dr Watson, we need to have her statement, otherwise this will never hold up in court.”
“It doesn’t have to.” Sherlock interjected, opening his eyes and speaking for the first time they had come in the room. “It is clear that Moran is behind the phone records disappearing. It hardly matters for a conviction whether he did the job himself or not.”
Alec scrubbed his face in frustration. “Right. Mr Holmes, Dr Watson. I, um, owe you both an apology.”
John and Sherlock stared at Alec in surprise.
“You obviously went above and beyond to gather intelligence the police would not have access to. This even though I was not very, er, pleasant earlier.” Alec gathered his thoughts for a moment, then continued. “I had my reasons to be strict, but I did not need to behave the way I did. So. I hope you accept my apologies.”
John was considering Alec for a moment and formulating an appropriate answer when Sherlock replied, “We accept your apologies, Detective Inspector. I hope you also will accept mine. I can be … difficult to work with.”
John found his voice then. “Can we agree to set our differences aside and cooperate? There’s a psycho out there killing kids.”
Alec nodded, first at them and then towards the whiteboard. “Aye, let’s, um, let’s do that. We confirmed the car park as a meeting place. And, most importantly, a van was sighted there by Peter Rushford’s dad on a night he went out to fetch his kid from his nocturnal escapade.”
Sherlock perked up. “A van? What kind of van, what did it look like, colour, model, where was it parked, do we have a plan of the car park–”
“Mr Holmes.” Alec interrupted with exasperation on his face. “Please let me finish.”
Sherlock pursed his lips. “Please call me Sherlock. ‘Mr Holmes’ reminds me of my older, insufferable brother.”
Alec gave him a look but continued. “Mr Rushford didn’t register much about the vehicle then, but he thinks it was one of those vans used by handymen, had something about ‘repairs’, was light-coloured, possibly white. Never mind noticing the license plate or anything actually useful.” He ran exasperated fingers through his hair. “The van lead gives us nothing. Tens of thousands of vehicles are stolen in England every year; a good deal are vans. Without knowing anything else than possibly the colour and maybe a word painted on the chassis, it’s like finding a needle in a haystack.”
“A van … that would be the ideal vehicle, right? Nobody would think twice about some van parking overnight in a car park.” John started to see the full picture, and when he lifted his gaze to Sherlock he could see his thoughts mirrored.
“Indeed, Dr Watson. We don’t have other sightings of this van so far, but Miller and I considered that this would be a feasible vehicle to commit a murder, and to transport and change clothes on the bodies. All in an easy-to-clean contained environment. As you observed … Sherlock, the bodies were thoroughly clean. DNA from that one strand of hair will take days to identify and cross-reference.”
“I doubt you will find much. DNA records can easily be altered, and Moran’s might be totally gone. But you’ll be able to compare it with his actual hair.” Alec looked at Sherlock inquisitively. “We will catch him, Detective Inspector, plenty of DNA there for your forensics.”
“ ‘Hardy’ will do,” Alec offered.
John broke the awkwardness. “Right. Ah, Ellie wanted us back for dinner and updates, so. Sherlock?”
“John. You know I don’t eat while on a case.”
“God, why must we have this discussion every time? You can’t run on air.”
Sherlock smiled in mischief. “I’ll come for pudding.”
“If you don't eat your meat, you can't have any pudding,” John quipped.
Sherlock frowned. “What does one thing have to do with the other?”
John chuckled. “You’ve deleted Pink Floyd, haven’t you?”
Sherlock just looked even more confused but retorted fondly, “Is this one of those bits of pop culture trivia that you seem to find important? I memorised the solar system for you, John, but I do have my limits.”
John beamed at him in amusement, but the moment was broken with Alec clearing his throat. “If I may suggest. Sherlock and I could stay here and go over the whole case, see if we have all the details down. Figure out how to trap Moran. Dr Watson, you go to Miller and update her. We meet here tomorrow morning when we have all the staff back from the weekend.”
John ruminated on the merits of Alec’s suggestion. He was not happy about leaving Sherlock out of his sight. His hackles were raised. But, Ellie needed to get acquainted with the latest developments, and quite frankly, dinner sounded like a very good idea. Leaving these two alone in the same room, well. That was another issue altogether, but John decided he was too wired up to be playing mediator at this point.
“Alright, I’ll walk to Ellie’s place now. Sherlock, keep me updated, yeah? And text me before you decide to do anything stupid, like running after murderers on your own.”
Sherlock rolled his eyes with an amused smirk. “Yes, Captain.”
Tom ran to the front door as soon as he heard the doorbell.
“Hi, Tom! Nice to see you again.” John smiled at Tom but did not fail to notice how his face fell almost imperceptibly, as if John wasn’t quite who he was expecting to see. “Ah, your mom threatened with dinner, so here I am.”
“Hi, Dr Watson. Yeah, um, come in the kitchen. She’s upstairs with Fred.”
They had met briefly over breakfast. Tom had asked a few shy questions about cases he’d read on John’s blog, but had kept quiet most of the time. Sherlock had been polite in his replies, explaining his deduction skills and how he stored information in his mind palace, while John had mostly offered anecdotes and curious bits from odd cases.
John helped Tom with setting the table for dinner, taking out cutlery and dishes, and tried to engage in small talk. Tom didn’t reply much, but John convinced himself that was probably typical teenager behaviour. Which made John think, maybe …
“Say, Tom,” he began carefully, hoping his question would sound like a natural continuation of the small talk, “do you hang out with your school friends during the summer?”
“Not really. One or two.”
“Anything fun you do in the evenings? I mean, such a small town, maybe it gets boring for kids your age.”
“A bit. I prefer to stay at home and play online, but mom isn’t too thrilled about it.” He turned away to fiddle with napkins, effectively avoiding John’s further scrutiny.
Heavy steps sounded from the staircase and Ellie entered the kitchen with a cranky Fred in her arms. “Hi, John, good you’re here. Tom, help Dr Watson to take out the food and serve. I need to make a plate for the little terror.” She looked around while settling Fred in his chair. “Where’s Sherlock?”
“He stayed behind with Hardy.”
“Do you think it’s safe?” She quirked up a smile, but it disappeared quickly as Fred started wailing about how his water just had to be in a sippy cup.
“Put it this way, we only have to deal with one baby at a time,” John quipped.
Ellie laughed, and turned to fill a well-worn sippy cup with water and to cut vegetables in small portions for her youngest son, while John and Tom plated food.
The dinner was mostly quiet, with idle chat between Ellie and John. A silent agreement kept talk about the murders out of earshot from the boys. Instead, it was about Fred’s demands for sippy cups despite being old enough to drink from a glass; about how London was overrun by tourists year-round; about fossil hunters and quiet beaches along the otherwise popular Jurassic Coast.
Tom absently pushed food around the plate. Taking advantage of a small pause in the conversation, he set down his cutlery. “Mom, may I be excused?”
“You hardly ate anything. Are you feeling okay?”
“I’m just tired. I think I’ll go to bed early.”
Ellie glanced at the kitchen clock and frowned, “It’s just gone half seven.” She set down her fork and lifted her hand to feel his temperature, but he avoided her.
“Mom, I’m not ill. Just tired, I have a headache. Maybe too much sun at the beach today, that’s all. I’ll just finish reading a book and go to bed.”
“Let me check you; it could be heatstroke.”
John interrupted politely, “Ah, he would have been worse for the wear if it was heatstroke, Ellie. The onset of symptoms is faster, and he’s lacking several of them.” He turned to Tom, “Could be dehydration, though; maybe try to drink some water before bed, yeah?”
Ellie chuckled. “I forgot you are a doctor. I’ll trust your expert opinion.”
“Mom.” Tom rolled his eyes.
“Alright, I’ll check on you later, okay?”
Tom got up eagerly from the table, disposing of his dish in the sink. “It’s really not necessary, thanks. Goodnight.” He all but ran up the stairs. Ellie sighed and picked up her fork.
“Teenagers, huh?” John offered a sympathetic smile.
Ellie cut a piece of roast beef and chewed thoughtfully. “He’s been a bit … off, since … you know.”
“Yeah, I can understand that.”
They spoke little during the rest of the dinner, with sounds of clinking cutlery and Fred singing Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star on loop cutting the silence. Ellie excused herself for Fred’s bedtime while John offered to do the washing up.
She returned a half hour later, John waiting in the living-room with a fresh pot of tea. “Ah, you’re a proper angel, John.”
“Figured we would need it.”
John proceeded to give Ellie the same abridged version of the afternoon’s events that they had given Alec. He felt slightly guilty about not disclosing what they had learned about Jax, but it wouldn’t do to ask a police officer to keep quiet about a key person in the investigation.
“John,” she interrupted after he mentioned that Sherlock thought they’d be contacted by Moran, “I’m worried. This guy killed three boys. He bought three suits. So, I assume his killing spree is over, but. What is his next move? Isn’t he going after Sherlock? This all looks like a setup.”
John swallowed thickly. “Yeah, um. Sherlock assumes that he’ll be contacted somehow. He got a message earlier today from him. ‘Did you miss me’, it read, like that Moriarty broadcast after Christmas, you remember?” Ellie nodded. “I dislike the idea of having him waiting like a sitting duck, but he’s convinced he’s not a target.”
“How is he not a target if the bodies were writing his initials, John? I’m not convinced. The murders were a visiting card to get Sherlock here.”
“Yeah, it doesn’t make much sense to me either.”
“Did Alec find anything about the van? Did he tell you?”
“He told us about the van, but I don’t think there was any new lead there. Ellie, this guy is good. If he worked with Moriarty … he knows how to hide his tracks.”
Ellie sighed and sipped her tea.
“Why do you hate Broadchurch, Detective Inspector?”
Sherlock had returned to his thinking pose after John left, sitting in one of the uncomfortable chairs in the small case room. Alec was returning to the room with a reheated mug of tea and got startled by the sudden question.
“I don’t hate Broadchurch.”
“Yes, you do.” Sherlock opened his eyes and faced Alec.
“Yeah, okay, I do. It’s just … too much sun, and there’s sand everywhere, and the people are always smiling and happy.” Alec pronounced the last words as if they were insults.
“Miller thinks I need to be polite. Drink tea when we interview witnesses in their homes and that sort of rot.” Alec sipped his tea. “And behind all that happy façade, kids get murdered. First Danny, now these poor bastards.” He scowled at Sherlock. “Why are you making small talk?”
Sherlock raised his eyebrows and muttered, “I’m … chatting. Won’t try that again.”
Sherlock grimaced at Alec. “Are you really going to drink that?”
“What, the tea?”
Alec became a bit defensive. “It’s just a tad reheated.”
“You don’t want me here.”
Alec sat across the table, set his mug down, and took a deep breath. “It’s just … it’s been hard to come back from the fiasco of Joe Miller’s trial. We were painted as incompetent, our reputations dragged through the mud. Miller, er, Ellie that is ... this was really hard on her and her family. It shattered the whole community.” He made an encompassing gesture. “I don’t care about the blasted town or the bloody shiny happy people, but I have to work here, and it would be good if they didn’t completely hate us. So, no, I was not thrilled to see the Met sending us a celebrity detective instead of. You know. More official resources.”
“You felt they were rubbing salt into the wound. I suppose our first impressions were not the best,” Sherlock offered.
“Well. You made me change the light bulb in my bathroom.” Alec and Sherlock shared a knowing smirk. Alec turned serious again. “Sherlock, what does this guy want from you? Dr Watson said he was a sniper. If he’s after you, why hasn’t he simply, well, used his skills?”
“I believe he might want a confrontation before assassinating me. What escapes me is his motivation, though. If it would be to avenge Moriarty’s death, as John proposed, why wait until now? No, there is something else.” Sherlock closed his eyes again, sinking in his chair.
“What a bizarre way to book a meeting. Did he really need to kill three kids?”
“As a rule, the more bizarre a thing is, the less mysterious it proves to be.”
Sherlock’s mobile buzzed in his suit jacket with a new message. He frowned at the unknown sender and unlocked the screen. A photo downloaded. Sherlock gasped.
John and Ellie exchanged impressions about the day’s events over two pots of tea, but their early rising hour was taking its toll. They said their goodnights, John taking first turn in the loo while Ellie went to check on Fred and Tom.
Fred slept peacefully in his small bed, tucked in with a thin blanket. Ellie gently pushed one strand of chestnut brown hair away from his eyes, idly thinking it was time to get him a haircut. She watched him breathing, just observing how his chest moved up and down, and paced down her own breaths, feeling some of the day’s tension flowing away.
Ellie heard John going in the guest room and stepped out of Fred’s room, softly closing the door behind her. She would check on Tom – she was not convinced he wasn’t coming down with something. Retreating early just to finish reading a book and go to bed? Not bloody likely.
Yet, no light spilled from under his closed door. Ellie opened it carefully, stepping into the dark bedroom. The waning moon wasn’t visible yet, but the diffuse grey starlight allowed her to discern a lump lying still in bed, covered head to toe. She was about to step out when the thought occurred: the evening had brought some blessed cooler temperatures, but it was not cold. Was Tom sick after all, feeling the need to cover himself in blankets?
As Ellie laid a careful hand on the edge of the duvet, she realised that something was off – the shape of the body, the absolute stillness. She dragged down the duvet – only to find several blankets rolled up, neatly moulded to resemble a torso and legs.
“What the hell?” Ellie whispered to herself and looked quickly around the room, as if she would find Tom in some corner, panic slowly rising. “No, no, no, what. Tom?” The window was closed but not latched. Ellie swallowed her fear and tried to think rationally: if Tom had been abducted, surely the perpetrator would not dare to take their time faking the shape of her son’s body on the mattress and closing the window after themselves?
Bodies laid down on the sand with military precision, detailed planning, like you would know anything about losing your boy – No!
Ellie took deep breaths to try and calm herself down as she reached for the light switch. She flinched with the sudden flood of light but forced herself to observe. There were no signs of struggle. The blankets were the winter ones that were kept in the bottom of the chest of drawers – the last drawer was closed, and it would have taken time to find the blankets. The window? No signs of break-in, no visible fingerprints on the windowpanes.
Had Tom fabricated an indisposition to justify his absence in the evening, just so he could … what, faff around with some girl? Something worse? Ellie was oscillating between worry and anger. She turned around to leave the room, reaching for her mobile – the little bastard had better answer her phone call, or be grounded for life.
A pre-recorded message told Ellie the number could not be reached. She tried again and again in desperation, panic taking over again.
“Sherlock?” Alec stepped to his side and seized Sherlock’s mobile from his shaking fingers. Alec couldn’t help a gasp either when he finally looked at the screen and took in what had troubled Sherlock.
A photo of a teenage boy, stocky build, lying on grassy ground. But this time, not in a suit – jeans, a plaid button-down, a maroon cardigan. Lifeless blue-grey eyes, the colour of a subdued summer storm. Short sandy blond hair with side-swept bangs instead of black curls. And one hand propped against his temple in a mock military salutation.
Alec read out loud the accompanying line of text: “An eye for an eye.”
Sherlock trembled and whispered, “John.” He inhaled sharply and snatched his phone back from Alec, frantically bringing up John’s number and pressing the call button. “I’ve been an idiot, all this time thinking Moran wanted me, he’s after John; he’s in danger–”
“Sherlock, calm the hell down. He’s with Miller, he couldn’t be safer.”
Sherlock’s terror crumbled like a wave crashing ashore when he heard John’s voice after the second ring.
Ellie stepped out of the room, dizzy with adrenaline and anxiety, and bumped into John. He was still dressed but looked pale and clutched his mobile in a hard grip. “John?”
“Ellie. He. He’s killed again.”
Ellie grabbed his wrist and looked at the photo on the screen. Her world went black.
“We’re going to need to scour through Broadchurch.” Alec jumped into action after the initial shock, reaching for his phone. “I’ll gather a team to comb through the whole town, if necessary. If that photo is fresh, that psychopath can’t be far away.”
Sherlock printed the photo enlarged on an A4 sheet. “He will see you coming from miles away.” His eyes flitted over the image, taking in all details.
“Well, we have to find the body.”
Alec’s hand hovered over the landline in expectation. “What?”
“Where do you find this type of vegetation in Broadchurch? See here,” Sherlock pinned the photo on the pinboard, “short, compact grass, well-kept. Freshly mowed and recently watered; it has not rained recently in this region.”
“Someone’s backyard? Although …” Alec focused narrowed eyes on the photo and gasped. “The golf course!”
“The golf course.”
“Ellie? Ellie?” John was able to catch Ellie and guide her to sit down on the floor before she collapsed. He tapped her cheek gently to get some reaction – she was obviously going into shock. His eyes roamed quickly into Tom’s room, thinking that a blanket would be good to give her comfort while he would fetch some water. He came to some quick conclusions when he saw the moulded blankets on the bed and instead turned his attention back to Ellie.
“Ellie? It’s not him. It’s not him, Ellie, it’s not Tom!”
“He’s. He’s gone, John!” Ellie’s voice had an edge of hysteria, but she seemed to be coming to her senses.
“Ellie, listen to me.” John kneeled in front of her and placed firm hands on her upper arms, forcing her to hold straight and look at him. “The boy in the photo? Not Tom. The, the haircut and colour are similar, that’s. That’s what fooled you. But it’s not him.”
As realisation hit her, she focused her eyes on John. “He killed another kid.”
John hesitated a moment, finding words. “Yeah, apparently so. This was actually forwarded by Sherlock; he got this message first.”
Ellie scrambled to her feet. “We have to call Hardy.”
“Hardy knows. They were still at the station when Sherlock called me.” John decided to leave the details of the phone call for later. Sherlock had been in a state – he had railed about how Moran was after John, and that John was in danger, and John twice had to tell him to shut up and breathe. After John promised him for the third time he would not go anywhere until Sherlock had returned to Ellie’s house, he could hear the relief in his friend’s voice. John felt a small nugget of anxiety after Sherlock’s rant – it was hard to deny the boy in the photo looked a lot like him, and the pose … It would not be the first time one of Sherlock’s enemies would try to get to Sherlock through John.
“John, I have to find Tom, I don’t know where he is, his phone is turned off, he–”
“Do you think he was, um, abducted?” John interrupted gently.
Ellie took a deep breath. “No. I panicked there for a moment, but it seems that he excused himself early then slipped out through the bloody window. The little shit is in so much trouble when I find him.” She gave John a feeble smile. “There’s no signs pointing to a, a struggle or, or a rushed act at all. He left because he wanted to.”
John was relieved to see Ellie coming back to detective mode. “He fibbed at dinner time.”
“Yeah. But. What. What if he was lured out like the other kids and. Oh god.”
“I’ll help you look for him. I promised Sherlock I wouldn’t leave the house until he arrived, but that was before knowing Tom was missing.” He had an idea. “Do you think Tom was part of the group of kids meeting at the car park? Maybe he headed there? Or, do you have any other idea of where he could have been heading to?”
Ellie shook her head. “I. I don’t know.” She squeezed her eyes shut and took a deep breath. When she opened her eyes again, her gaze was clear and focused. “I’ll drive there and have a good look around on my way up. Check around the neighbourhood, but stay close, in case he returns.” She was turning to run downstairs when she realised. “Oh god, what am I saying, we can’t leave Fred alone. Damn!”
“Is there anyone you could call? A neighbour?”
Ellie pondered a moment, retrieved her phone, and brought up a recent number. A female voice answered with a cautious ‘Hello?’
“Beth?” Ellie’s voice trembled against her best efforts. “I need your help. Tom is missing.”
“Why do you think he’s after John?”
Sherlock paced impatiently. “There’s no time for this, Detective Inspector; I need to go to him now.”
“I can’t believe I’m saying this, but you are not thinking rationally.”
Sherlock glared, insulted, at Alec. “Well, do enlighten me, Hardy.”
“Until now, all evidence pointed to this being an elaborate game, a trap to get to you. Why do you think he’s changed the rules now?”
“Because he knows that the worst thing he can do to me is not ending my life, but rather taking John’s. Moriarty knew John is my … pressure point. Logically, his thugs were in possession of this same knowledge.”
Alec looked at Sherlock pensively. “I rather think that he wants us to discover the body tonight. It’s a beacon. Otherwise, he would have done the same as with the others: leave them to be discovered by someone passing by in the morning.”
Sherlock hissed in frustration. Alec continued, “Look, let’s do like this. I go up to the golf course and have a look around. You go to John and Miller, pick them up, and bring them to the cliff.”
“Alone? According to your logic, Moran is waiting for me near the golf course, making you an easy target.”
“There’s no place to hide up there; if he spots me, I’ll spot him. I’ll get reinforcements if I smell trouble. It’s protocol, anyway.”
Sherlock briefly mulled over this. “Fine.” He picked up his jacket and sprinted out of the room.
Ellie opened the front door. “Oh, Beth. Thank you so much for coming, I’m really sorry to bother you–”
“It’s all right. What happened?” Beth Latimer stepped into the house.
“Tom went out without telling me. He made a lump on his bed with blankets to make me think he was asleep, and he’s not answering his phone. I have to go and look for him; I couldn’t leave Fred alone.”
Beth nodded. “Alright. Okay, Ellie, it’s okay. I’ll just wait here until you come back, not a problem. Chloe can look after Lizzie anyway.”
“I have two guests staying with us, Sherlock Holmes and John Watson. They’re helping with the murder investigation. John is not far off; he’s looking around the neighbourhood on foot. They might return to the house before me. I will drive around to some places where Tom might be.”
“Ellie …” Beth hesitated before continuing, “I’m sorry about what I said earlier. I’m sure you’ll find Tom safe.”
“Oh Beth, you don’t have to apologise. I, I have to go now.”
“Go. Good luck.”
Ellie scrambled out of the house and walked into the night.
Sherlock called John on his mobile again while walking briskly towards their rental car.
“You are walking outdoors, why are you walking outdoors?”
“Tom is missing, Ellie and I are looking for him. I’m near the house though, are you there?”
“No, was about to drive to you. Missing?”
“Yeah, it doesn’t look like he was forced or anything like that, but–”
“Pass her your phone.”
“She’s not with me; she was going to drive to that car park where they think kids are meeting, maybe he’s part of the group. She’s probably on her way now.”
Sherlock slammed shut the car door after sitting behind the wheel. “Are you walking alone?”
John rolled his eyes. “Yes, Sherlock, I am walking alone through an idyllic residential area looking for a teenager. Hardly the same thing as chasing murderers on rooftops and dark alleys.”
Sherlock mumbled a curse under his breath. “Alright, I’m driving now, should be there in five minutes. Go back to the house and wait for me.”
John heard the engine start before Sherlock rang off, cutting off any possibility for a reply. It was the second time Sherlock had called John this evening – and Sherlock never called when he could text instead. Damn it all to hell – he knew Sherlock was worried, but Tom was still missing, and John didn’t want to let Ellie down. He decided to have a quick look around before going back to the house to meet Sherlock. He continued on the narrow walkway, passing in front of the last houses on the edge of the neighbourhood. It was getting late; the area was dark and quiet, most residents having gone to bed by now. There was an expanse of grass up to the main road; if John walked up there, he would have a better view over the area and down the other side towards the sea. It would only take a couple of minutes, and perhaps Sherlock would even see him if that was the road he’d be driving on.
Encouraged by these thoughts, John turned to walk over the grassy field, not noticing the large man shadowing him.
Chapter 9: Burn the Heart Out of You
Alec walked briskly along the esplanade towards the coast path running up to the top of the east cliff. That was the same path that he had taken with Ellie, John, and Sherlock just the day before; it now felt like ages ago. The night was clear but moonless, the landscape lit only by starlight and the diffuse lighting rolling down from the town centre. The pier, just ahead of him, was also lit with amber bulbs; at the end of the pier, a few metres into the sea, the mandatory warning lights blinked, announcing danger to any eventual night navigation.
The walkway on the pier was dark, though, which explained why Alec did not see at first what he now clearly spotted: the lithe figure of a tall man facing a shorter person. Not a small child, but not an adult either, from what Alec could gather from a distance. He narrowed his eyes in suspicion at the scene: the man seemed to be holding the kid … the boy, he could tell now, by his upper arms.
If something was about to happen, there would be no time to call for reinforcements. Instinctively lowering his hand to the taser at his hip, Alec broke into a jog towards the pier. Twenty metres away from the two figures, he recognised them:
“Joe Miller, hands up where I can see them, and step back from that boy!”
Joe startled and released Tom, throwing his hands up. “I haven’t done anything!”
Alec stepped menacingly towards Joe. “You were told in no uncertain terms to leave Broadchurch and not come back. Tom, go home.”
“He didn’t do anything wrong! We were just talking!” Tom shouted desperately at Alec, who didn’t even glance at him lest he lose sight of Joe.
“It’s true, I was just talking to my boy!” Joe whined, cowering away from Alec.
“Oh, I see, like you talked to Danny Latimer?” Alec seethed, closing in on Joe, who stepped backwards until he hit the cement wall.
“I was cleared from Danny’s death! By a court of law!”
“No.” Alec inched towards Joe. “You were found not guilty by a legal system that is so stuck in minutiae about procedures that it fails to deliver justice.” Alec was now toe-to-toe with Joe, pinning him in place with a murderous look. “You filth. You have the nerve to come back and torment Ellie? To reach out to Tom, you, a child molester?”
Joe sobbed, tremors shaking his body. Alec could hear Tom’s fast panicked breaths behind him. He grabbed Joe’s lapels and shook him violently once, making him whimper. “I should throw you down this pier into the sea and let you rot with the fish. Give me one good reason not to do that.”
“No!” Tom’s broken wail made Alec take a long, scrutinising look at Joe. He released him and took a step back.
“Get the hell out of here and do not come back. Or else I will help Miller make good on her promise.”
Joe glanced at Tom and let tears run freely. Without another word, he turned and walked away. Tom made a movement to follow but Alec gripped his arm and pointed at a bench. “No. Sit there while I call your mom.”
Tom deflated and threw himself heavily down on the wooden bench. Alec fished out his mobile and called Ellie.
“Alec, not now, I’m driving, Tom is missing–”
“He’s with me. On the pier. Found him when I was going to the east cliff. The new body might be near the golf course. You saw the photo, right?” Alec turned away from Tom on the last sentences, so he wouldn’t hear about the new death. Lost in his thoughts and staring at the ground, Tom did not seem to notice. Alec let his gaze drift across the harbour, to the east cliff and the car park where the uphill coast path started.
“He’s what? Put him on the phone. I want to talk to him!”
“He’s a bit shaken right now. Can you come here and pick him up, we have …” Alec fixed his eyes on a point on the car park. He was too far away to be sure but …
There was a white van. With printed text on the side door.
Ellie continued to shout something in his ear, but Alec was not processing her words any longer. “Miller. Miller. I think I spotted the van. East Beach Car Park.”
Ellie stopped talking. After a moment of silence, Alec heard her determined voice again: “I’m on my way.”
Beth cursed softly at the loud banging on the front door, hoping Fred would not wake up with all the racket. She opened it to find a momentarily confused Sherlock Holmes.
“Who are you? Where’s John?” Without waiting for a reply, he pushed past Beth into the house, and scanned the downstairs rooms. “John!”
“Will you keep quiet, you’ll wake up Fred! If you’re looking for Mr Watson, he’s not here.”
Sherlock whirled around and loomed over Beth. “Doctor Watson. What have you done to him?”
Beth scoffed at his dramatic pose. “Doctor Watson is somewhere outside looking for Tom. That would be Ellie’s son–”
“I know who Tom is, and I told John to come back in,” Sherlock looked at his watch, “eight minutes and forty seconds ago.”
“Oh. Well, I’m sure he’ll be here any minute now. But do keep quiet.”
Sherlock collected himself, stepped back and extended his hand. “Apologies. Sherlock Holmes.”
She shook his hand. “Beth Latimer. I’m a neighbour. Well, a friend. Ellie asked me to sit with Fred while they’re looking for Tom.”
Sherlock gave her a thoughtful look. “Danny Latimer’s mother.”
Beth flicked her eyes away and back to Sherlock and pursed her lips. “Yes. Um, so you’re helping with the investigation? Of the recent deaths, I mean.” She let herself take a good look at him. Something in Sherlock’s posture made him look taller than he was. Beads of sweat clung to his temples and he was flushed like he had just run a mile. He had clear, light blue eyes, shining with intelligence and a hint of mania below a mop of unruly dark curls. For a brief moment, Beth allowed a thought to bubble up to the surface – of how an adult Danny would have looked like, what he would have chosen as a career, when he would have brought his first boyfriend or girlfriend home–
“Yes.” Sherlock’s short answer broke the moment. He reached for his mobile and rang John.
“Everybody knows it was Joe Miller.”
“Mrs Latimer, Joe Miller is not involved in these murders–”
“I meant Danny.”
Sherlock muttered ‘pick up, pick up, pick up’ under his breath, scowling at John not answering his phone. When the call went to voicemail, he turned around to leave the house.
“Mr Holmes? Please don’t let this one get away.”
Sherlock slowed down to a stop and looked over his shoulder. “I won’t.”
In hindsight, John thought, perhaps it would have been a better idea to have returned to the house after Sherlock called. It would most likely have avoided the present situation of being gagged and bound inside a moving vehicle. Said vehicle slowed down and came to a full stop, engine noise dying; and while this brought some relief to his rather spectacular headache, he knew that the stop preceded worse events.
John chastised himself for not sensing he was being followed. In the end, a good whack to the head from behind had been enough to render him helpless. He woke up already inside of the moving car – no, van – his hands tied behind his back, his feet bound, and his mouth taped.
John swallowed down his fear when the side door of the van slid open. A man appeared, outlined against the faintly lit night.
“Ah, Dr Watson, you’re awake. I have a little something for you.” The man rolled John to his side and ripped a hole on John’s shirt. John tried to wiggle away but the man held him in a fierce grip. He felt the distinctive prick of a needle on his arm and struggled anew against the man’s grasp. “Now, now, Dr Watson, you’ll only injure yourself if you do that.” He ripped the silver tape from John’s mouth, making him wince in pain. “There could be a little side effect. I would hate for you to choke on your own vomit and die before I’m done with you.”
From the quick onset of symptoms, John understood that he had probably been given a fast-acting paralytic: his heart rate fluttered, and his muscles started aching. He might not lose consciousness, but he wouldn’t be able to move for some time. How long? He opened his mouth but could not make a sound. He felt his mobile buzzing softly in a pocket.
As he was manhandled out of the van and over his kidnapper’s shoulder, John’s foggy thoughts turned into a silent apology to Sherlock.
Ellie had just reached the car park on the west cliffs when Alec called. A rush of relief washed over her – Tom was alright, he was safe, he was with Alec; everything would be alright. But as she turned the car around, she wondered what had happened. Why was Tom at the pier? Had he been alone? She needed to get to him but Alec’s assertion that a suspicious van was at the park on the other side of the harbour made her uneasy. Ellie hoped Alec had called a patrol unit or any kind of reinforcement, really – she didn’t have identification or any weapon on her.
She had to drive by the pier anyway if she was to take the coastal road that crossed Broadchurch, so naturally she would pick up Tom first, but then what? She could hardly take him to a potentially dangerous scene; leaving him unattended after all the stress didn’t seem to be a good idea either. Take him home and return to the harbour? Precious time would be lost in the event the murderer was in the area – Alec needed her help.
Ellie slapped the wheel with both her hands in frustration. She needed to call John and tell him to stop searching around the house. She could not ask him to join her and Alec in the harbour – he was a consultant, a civilian, not a member of the police force. Doing office work, looking at crime scenes, even interviewing key persons, that was acceptable; an active scene with crime in progress was not. John would just have to accept this.
After the second unsuccessful attempt to reach John, Ellie gave up – she was now reaching the harbour area, and the pier was in sight. She parked along the street across from the pier and spotted Tom on a bench.
He didn’t acknowledge Ellie’s presence until she stepped in front of him. “May I ask what the hell was this all about?”
Tom slowly raised a sheepish gaze from the ground and looked at her under his lashes. “I was going to meet … a friend.”
“You don’t look so happy. Did your friend call off the meeting?”
“Mom, can we not do this now?”
Ellie exploded, “Can we! Can we not do this?! Really, Tom? You pretend to be sick to disappear from my sight, pile blankets on your bed to deceive me – me, Tom, I’m a detective, remember? – escape through the window, make me call Beth in a hurry to babysit Fred so that I and Dr Watson can go out looking for you … Where’s your mobile?”
Tom silently handed his mobile to her.
“See these missed calls from a sender called ‘MOM’? That’s the sort of calls you should never neglect to pick up. I was dead worried!” Ellie exhaled heavily. She was angry but the relief from knowing Tom was safe and alive weighed heavier. She softened her tone, “Look, I’m sorry that we ended up like this. I know it hasn’t been easy for you, but you must understand that it hasn’t been easy for me either. I want you to trust me and I want to be able to trust you. Do you think we can do that?”
Tom nodded slowly. “I’m sorry too, mom. Can we go home now?”
Ellie considered the situation. She glanced at the car park across the harbour. Sure enough, there was a white van there, discernible despite the poor lighting. She could not see any other movement, but Alec had to be there somewhere.
“There’s been a development in the case; I need to meet Hardy over there.” She pointed with her chin towards the car park. “I’m not sure what we’re going to find on the scene, so it would be wise if you went directly home. Apologise to Beth, okay? Send me a message when you get home.” She gave him his mobile back.
Tom nodded again and started to slowly make his way home. Ellie looked at him for a few minutes, until he went around a corner and disappeared from her sight. She decided to leave the car by the pier and approach the car park as quietly as possible.
Sherlock craned his neck over hedges, turning his head left and right like a frenzied periscope. John was nowhere in sight and was not answering his phone. The minutes stretched, and Sherlock knew he had to rise above the haze of dread unfurling in his guts. He had to find John.
Scenario number one: John was still walking around the houses and had set his mobile to silent to move unnoticed. This would be likely if it wasn’t that John always left the vibration mode on, lest he missed an urgent call or text from Sherlock.
Scenario number two: John had found the boy and was soothing him somewhere, not paying attention to Sherlock’s attempts to contact him. This was in reality an extension of scenario one and therefore also quickly dismissed – John would not ignore Sherlock after the half-panicked calls. He was not cruel.
Corollary: John was not answering his phone because he could not do so. Which lead to scenario number three: John had been neutralised.
Where could he be, then? Sherlock quickly deduced that John had turned left after leaving the house to search for Tom – John was left-handed, which in situations where there was a fifty/fifty probability of choosing a particular route would result in John preferring a left turn in approximately seventy-six percent of all cases. Besides, there were more houses and backyards and narrow walkways in that direction.
This reasoning flashed through Sherlock’s mind as he strode down one such walkway to the very end. From there, an ill-kempt lawn stretched up to the main road. At a slightly raised location, the road would be a perfect spot to survey the area.
Sherlock looked down at the grass in front of his feet and cursed silently for not thinking before to look for clues on the ground. He took out his mobile and lit the torch, pointing it downwards while stepping carefully towards the road. The overgrown grass was soft and gave easily under his weight.
It did not take long for Sherlock to find what he was looking for. He could read the scene in front of him: a heavily built man (Moran) had followed a shorter one (John). One of them fell. John. From there, drag marks and one set of footprints only. Moran half carrying, half dragging John.
This had happened suddenly, or John would have struggled. There were no signs of blood – hopefully, John had not been shot or stabbed. Hit from behind, then, unconsciousness taking over quickly.
The drag marks went up to the road, where the asphalt would make it impossible to follow any more leads about Moran’s destination. But Sherlock didn’t need to look further for clues – he knew exactly where to find them.
Sherlock spun on his heels and ran back to the rental car.
John knew where they were. Well, he thought he knew. Being hauled as a very undignified sack of potatoes while under the influence of a paralytic was not conducive to full awareness of his surroundings. But a man living and working with Sherlock Holmes learned a thing or two.
First, there was the unmistakable sound of waves breaking ashore and the strong smell of sea. Then, they were definitely going uphill, and a quite steep one at that, along a battered path cutting through compact green grass.
John did not know how long he had been knocked out, but it could not have been too long: enough to be thrown into a van and bound, and this only would have taken his attacker (Moran, his brain dutifully offered) several minutes. He did not feel like he had been out for too long, so the trip to the seaside had been a short one. Thus, they were in Broadchurch or very nearby, and climbing up to a cliff, possibly even the same they had visited before.
What had he been given, though? He knew a few different medications that would induce neuromuscular paralysis – some were routinely used for intubation of patients. He was not short of breath, so respiratory depression was not a significant side effect–
It hit him suddenly what this meant. Taking also into account how fast the drug had acted, this meant that its action was short-lived.
Did Moran know this?
Hope blossomed in John’s chest.
Alec sneaked around the car park and approached the van as quietly as he could. A Ford Transit, one of the smaller models, white. ‘TRANSOM REPAIRS’, a Broadchurch address and a telephone number written on the side in nondescript characters. He did not recognise the address – probably made up, as ‘Transom Repairs’ was. But people never notice details, so the disguise was convincing.
He looked around. The surroundings were quiet: it was now past midnight, and while the harbour was a popular venue on summer evenings, Sunday nights saw tourists and residents falling in bed early, drained by long days at the beach or the dread of facing a new work week. The beach ahead was deserted and the darkness fell over the sea like a blanket; only the twinkling stars helped in distinguishing ocean from sky.
The pier was otherwise what interrupted the dark vastness. Alec thought about Tom. He didn’t feel good about leaving the boy alone on the pier after chasing off Joe, but he thought that the presence of the van meant Moran was in the vicinity. Had it been stupid to leave Tom alone in that case? He didn’t think so – Ellie would be there any minute now, and Alec was convinced Moran would be near the most recent victim, somewhere up on the cliff.
Alec turned his attention back to the van. The car park was asphalted but open on the beach side; the nearest dune spread sand constantly all over the area, and he felt grains crunching under his shoes. Street lighting didn’t quite reach this part of the park. Alec took out a small torch from his jacket pocket and dimmed it as far down as he could, hoping to not attract unwanted attention while he inspected the ground.
The sand was dry and not prone to show clear footprints. Yet, it was obvious that someone had moved about the sliding side door; not just opened and closed the door to retrieve something, but rather had stood and worked there long enough to shuffle their feet. His feet – the footprints were large, that much was possible to ascertain. Alec tried the door, and to his surprise, it whooshed open without resistance.
He quickly swept the torchlight over the floor, walls and ceiling of the van. At a first glance it looked empty, but then Alec saw a roll of silver tape hanging from a small hook on the opposite wall. There were a few sprigs of dried grass on the floor. His light caught a small object shining in the corner closest to him: a hypodermic needle.
He needed a team here now, Vickers and Young at least, to secure the scene and collect evidence. Alec didn’t even have a pair of gloves on him. He hoped Ellie could join him soon, but he knew Tom would be her priority now.
As he reached for his mobile, Alec looked past the van and saw a man carrying something … no, someone uphill. He gasped and widened his eyes, and evaluated the situation: was this a new murder? Was it the boy from the photo sent to Sherlock? It was too dark to discern further details.
“No time to lose, Hardy. Moran has John.” Alec yelped, astonished, as Sherlock spoke breathlessly as if he had just run a marathon. How had he not heard Sherlock approach? “Keep quiet! Moran expects me but only me; we need to keep the element of surprise.”
“I’m calling reinforcements, Sherlock, this is not negotiable.” Alec started thumbing his phone, but Sherlock grabbed his wrist.
“If you do that, John is a dead man. He will see your troops coming.”
“I can’t just let you up there in the hands of a homicidal maniac!”
“Alas, dear Inspector, that is exactly what we are going to do.” In one fluid movement, Sherlock handcuffed Alec to the grab handle just inside the open van door. Alec dropped his mobile in shock and Sherlock kicked it away, stepping back quickly.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?! Uncuff me right now!”
“I am sorry, Hardy.” Sherlock looked apologetic but continued to distance himself from Alec. “But I cannot let you interfere with my mission.” He ran towards the hill, leaving Alec cursing out loud.
By the time they reached the top of the cliff, John’s abductor was panting and John himself was extremely nauseous. He tried to breathe his gag reflex away, the salty breeze helping to clear his mind and calm his stomach. The man walked a few more steps and unceremoniously dumped John on the ground, kicking him to make him roll a few feet on the grass. John ended on right side, his back to the sea; his hands and feet were still bound but he started feeling something more in his achy muscles.
He needed to think. He would be able to move soon, he was sure. But how coordinated would he be? Being bound was not adding to the right side of the equation either.
Moran crouched and sat in front of him. “Good thing you can’t move, Dr Watson. It’s a long way down.”
John realised that moment that they had taken a few steps from the path, meaning they were very close to the edge of the cliff. How close though?
As if Moran had read his thoughts, he continued, “If you would be able to roll on your back, you would probably dislodge some of the loose cliff rocks behind you. Nowhere else to go except down. So do try to not fall. Not yet.” He flashed an insincere grin. “Oh, where are my manners? Sebastian Moran. I would shake hands but, well.” He tilted his head and scrutinised John. “We don’t need the titles, do we? I mean, Colonel and Captain. That was so long ago. Another life.”
John tried not to panic. So, Moran was going to kill him after all. Something in his expression looked familiar.
Moran crawled closer, his breath ghosting John’s face. “You’re probably wondering why you and not Sherlock. Can you guess why?”
At this distance, John saw it. The resemblance. The same eye shape and colour. The evil smile. The bloodless expression. The head tilt, the head tilt. Moran must have seen recognition dawning on his face. “That’s right, doctor. You and Sherlock Holmes took away something from me. The only person I had left. The only person I ever cared about.”
Moran was related to Mary. Mary.
He crawled away from John and stood, still looking at him. “Yes. My sister. Funny fact: did you know she pulled a stunt on me? Faked her own death; apparently, she had tired of our boss. Can’t blame her, really, the man was a nut job. But I was a bit angry when I found out she was alive and had a new identity and not told me about any of it. I’m sure you can relate.”
Despite the warm night, John felt chilled to the bone. Mary was still a wound, a piece of darkness within that had lodged itself between viscera and soul. A part of him would always hate her, another would always love her. She had come so close to him, so close, one of the two people he had ever trusted.
The other one showed up ten metres behind Moran. “Let him go. It’s me you want.”
Moran’s wicked smile widened while he turned slowly to face Sherlock, drawing a gun from an inner pocket. “Ah, Mr Holmes. How glad I am you accepted my invitation.”
Ellie approached the van and scowled at Alec while he struggled with the handcuffs. “How on earth did you manage to do that to yourself?”
Alec threw her an angry look. “Holmes did this to me!” He had finally reached his key and was in the process of releasing himself when Ellie arrived.
She spotted Alec’s mobile on the ground, picked it up and handed it to Alec. He rubbed his wrist and accepted the mobile. She gestured to the van. “I suppose this is the van, then. Where did Sherlock go? Why did he handcuff you?”
“He’s a right bastard, that’s what he is. We spotted Moran carrying someone up. Sherlock thinks it’s John. Has he been by your place?”
Ellie was unsure which ‘he’ Alec referred to now, but she relayed all she could: “John went out to look for Tom while I drove to the west cliffs. I asked Beth to sit with Fred. I haven’t seen Sherlock since this afternoon.”
They walked rapidly towards the path, intending to climb the hill. “Sherlock told me he was going to meet John at your place. He is convinced Moran is going after John.”
Ellie gasped. “Oh my god, Alec. After you called me, I tried to call John, but he didn’t answer.”
“Why would Sherlock not want your help?”
“He said he had a mission.”
“Murder and mayhem, Sebastian Moran. My, you really know how to attract a man’s attention.”
John rolled his eyes. Typical of Sherlock flirting with a psychopath while looking down the barrel of a gun.
“I learned a few things with my former boss.” Moran kept a steady hand on his gun, aiming it at Sherlock. “For example, how much of a drama queen you are.”
Sherlock’s eyes flicked down to John’s. John shook his head minutely, almost surprised at being able to do so. “John, are you alright?”
“Oh, he can’t answer you. I gave him a little something to relax. Don’t worry, he won’t suffer much longer.” Moran gave a step backwards, closer to John. “Do you know why we are here?”
“To kill me? How disappointingly unimaginative, after all the trouble you went through setting this up.”
“Oh no, Mr Holmes, I’m not going to kill you. No, no, no, no, no, not at all. Indeed, how unimaginative that would be. I’m here to burn the heart out of you.”
John saw how Sherlock’s face fell. Moran’s words brought back memories of a swimming pool, red lasers tracking their chests, explosives weighing his torso.
“I was just telling your doctor how cross I was about the pair of you killing my baby sister. She was the smartest person in the world. The only person that mattered. Could have been the next Moriarty if it wasn’t for her wanting to play house with Dr Watson here.”
Sherlock narrowed his eyes at him. “Mary Morstan.”
“The woman you knew as Mary Morstan. Her real name, well. I will not give you the privilege of knowing everything about her. It doesn’t matter to any of you anyway, does it? You butchered her and left her to die in a pool of her own blood. And I only found out when my contacts at MI5 ratted your brother out.”
Sherlock stood very still. “She was going to kill me and John.”
“And therefore, you chased her like a dog and murdered her. We’re not so different, are we? You left her to die,” Moran repeated, “in the arse-end of the world, and didn’t even have the honour to give her a proper burial.” Sherlock kept quiet and let Moran ramble on. “You liked seeing her die, didn’t you? To feel the body going slack and cold under your hands. At your mercy, finally, forever. Was that what you did, Holmes?”
Sherlock focused a cold glare on Moran. “Was that what you did, Moran? You murdered boys to feel the life running out of their bodies while you held them for hours?”
“I murdered you, over and over again. But not this time.” Almost imperceptibly, Moran shifted his stance and straightened his back. “This time, John Watson falls and Sherlock Holmes watches.”
“Sebastian Moran, stop! Your weapon on the ground and your hands up in the air where I can see them!” For the second time that evening, Alec’s voice boomed in the confident way of a skilled police officer. He stood a couple metres behind Sherlock, Ellie at his side.
Several things happened in the blink of an eye.
Moran sneered and pointed the gun at Alec.
John found his strength and lifted his bound feet sufficiently from the ground to manage swinging his legs at Moran. He hit Moran’s calves with enough force to make him trip, while a gunshot cut through the air.
The shot grazed Alec’s left thigh, drawing a cry from him and making him stumble. Ellie shouted when she realised Alec had been hit, but instantly knew their only chance now was to neutralise Moran. She yanked Alec’s taser from his hip, ran towards Moran and pointed it at him. “Drop your weapon or I will shoot!”
Moran stumbled backwards and lifted his gun to Ellie. She discharged the taser.
Taking advantage of Moran’s distraction, Sherlock flung himself at John and pulled him into his arms.
Stunned by the taser, Moran crumpled, his momentum taking him closer to the edge of the cliff. A section of rock and dirt gave way and crumbled under his weight. Ellie stared while Moran disappeared from her sight.
She turned back and ran to Alec. “Alec? Are you hurt? For god’s sake, tell me you’re not hurt!”
Alec clenched his teeth and squeezed his thigh. “It’s just a graze, Miller, I’m hardly bleeding.”
Ellie kneeled and looked at his wound. “It does look superficial.” She sat heavily next to him. “Vickers will be here soon with a unit; I’ll call an ambulance.”
“Really not necessary.”
“Stop being a knob; you will get proper medical attention! John is too busy right now to help you.” Her voice wobbled while she picked up her mobile. She saw a message from Tom before clicking it away to place the call.
They looked at Sherlock and John. The two men sat on the ground, Sherlock shakily cutting the last of the tape from John’s wrists with a small Swiss Army knife. As approaching sirens wailed in the distance, Sherlock folded his arms around John and held on as if his life depended on their embrace.
Chapter 10: To Conquer the Darkness
This is it, folks - the last chapter. I am so happy at the positive reception of this fic - thank you all! It's my first multi-chapter story, and it was quite the learning curve.
I was very lucky to have hotshoeagain as a beta reader from the very start - she has that uncanny ability to home in on the little things I struggle with.
I'm motivated to do more in this crossover 'verse - stay tuned!
The impending dawn made itself known, the dark starry sky giving way to indigos and violets. Ellie walked home, her short heels the only sound clicking through the silence. She was too tired to drive, and it was not a long walk anyway; a bit of fresh air would help to stave off exhaustion until she could fall in bed.
It had become a very long night. After making sure John was uninjured, Alec decided to take statements straight away. It had been for the better – they used the adrenaline still coursing through their systems to power through the bureaucratic bits. Moran’s body was removed from the beach in an operation that had taken a couple of hours – the cliff above was unstable after his stumble. The blond boy was found a few dozen metres down the coast path, on the golf green. Further forensics would have to wait until decent daylight was available.
It had taken some arguing to convince Alec not to arrest Sherlock after the handcuffing incident. In the end, Sherlock threatened to not disclose anything more about what had transpired on the top of the hill if Alec continued with his ‘irrational power moves and unreasonable behaviour’.
At least, Ellie had got a message from Tom when he’d arrived home, which brought some relief mixed with the guilt she still felt from sending him home on his own. In the midst of the turmoil, she had not been able to ask Alec for further details about the circumstances around finding Tom on the pier. That would have to wait a few more hours – all she wanted to do now was to get a couple of hours of sleep before having to walk back to the station and meet the morning crew.
She dug her house keys from her pocket and made a mental note to call Beth later. Reporters would be all over the new developments early enough – her nosy nephew would certainly see the cordoned-off area around the cliff on his morning tour of the town centre, and fire off his one-hundred-and-forty-character long bits of sensational crap on Twitter. Beth would deserve to know a bit more about what had happened, without the filter of media – it would never be closure for Danny, but maybe it would help her.
Opening the front door, Ellie noticed that the kitchen was lit. She found Tom sitting at the table, still wearing the same clothes.
“Why are you still up?” Ellie had no patience for gentle talk. Nor would she press for further answers right now – they both needed clearer heads for this.
Tom looked up from an empty glass in front of him. From the dried-in residue, it looked like he had some milk hours ago, but nothing else. “I wanted to wait for you.”
Ellie nodded and took a clean glass from a cupboard, filling it with tap water. “Do you want more milk? Something to eat?”
“Alright. Why did you wait up for me?” Ellie took small gulps of water and decided to let him lead the conversation.
“I wanted to apologise for leaving the house last night without telling you, and for not answering your calls. I’m sorry you were so worried. I didn’t mean to hurt you.” The words were rehearsed but heartfelt – Ellie knew when her boy was being honest. Surely, he had been mulling over what to say the whole night. “I didn’t think it would take so long for you to come home, that’s why I waited up.”
“I accept your apology. But, Tom,” she made him look at her with a gentle hand on his cheek, “this doesn’t mean we are not going to talk more about what happened. I’m also sorry it took me so long to come home.” She took his empty glass and set it down in the sink, together with her own glass. “Look, we’re both in need of some sleep. I will need to go back to work in a few hours. Sleep as long as you need to, alright?”
He nodded and slipped out of his chair, murmuring goodnight, and climbed the stairs. Ellie turned off the light and let the gritty grey pre-dawn light flood the kitchen before she went upstairs herself.
“How are you feeling, Ellie?”
Reverend Paul Coates had just concluded the burial service for Peter Rushford and given a few extra words of comfort to the parents. The early afternoon sun bathed the courtyard, where a few dozen people exchanged short platitudes and greetings. Paul found a moment to talk to Ellie, who stood by the door of the small church.
“I’m fine, Paul, thanks for asking.” Ellie was grateful for Paul’s kindness but replied curtly. She really did not want to go into details about the previous night. Alec was submerged in paperwork and logistics back at the station and had declined to go to the funeral. Ellie took it on herself to do the social bit. It was closure for them too.
“News has spread. Great job, Ellie. That man will never kill again.”
Ellie closed her eyes and let the sun warm her skin. “Four boys were murdered and …” And I killed a man. She did not complete the sentence out loud. There would be an investigation on how a suspect had been killed after a taser shot from a police officer. The events had to be carefully reconstructed and reported. Jenkinson was not thrilled, but Ellie couldn’t care less. Ellie knew she would be cleared from any wrongdoing, but it did not stop the clenching in her stomach. She wanted to put the whole thing away from her mind and her life.
“And no more will be, thanks to you.” Paul affirmed with his gentle but no-nonsense voice. He caught Jonathan Rushford’s gaze and nodded at him. Jonathan nodded back, an arm slung around his wife’s shoulders by the courtyard gate. “If you need to talk, anything …”
“Thanks again, Paul. That was a good sermon.” Ellie excused herself abruptly without waiting for a reply; she accepted a greeting from the Rushfords before walking through the gate and back to the station.
“What are you doing here?”
“Good afternoon, Miller, it’s nice to see you too again,” Alec replied with a sarcastic grin.
Ellie rolled her eyes at Alec. He sat in his office, reading glasses perched on his nose, scribbling away at a heap of papers. “Shouldn’t you be resting your leg? You’ve been up all night on it.”
“It was a graze, Miller. I needed a plaster, that’s all. Ruined a good pair of trousers, though,” Alec quipped in a visible effort to keep the tone light. “Close the door and sit down, will you?” Ellie closed the door and sat down on one of the office’s armchairs. Alec stood and walked round the desk; he sat gingerly on the armchair across from Ellie. She noticed he was not favouring his left leg and decided to accept his reassurance.
Alec fixed his eyes on her and took a long breath. “We were all business last night and this morning, and none of us got much sleep. How are you feeling, Ellie?”
She huffed. “Why is everybody asking me this today? I’m fine. Moran is dead and we’re not, so it’s all good. Case closed.” Ellie shifted in her seat. It was almost discomfiting to see a soft Alec, all relaxed shoulders and wide, brown eyes.
“You know this won’t go much further, right? It was reasonable use of a non-lethal weapon: civilians were in immediate danger. The cliff gave–”
“I know.” If he could stop being this … reasonable! “It’s just …”
“This guy killed four boys and was going to kill John just to get even with Sherlock. It’s such a … petty argument. What drives a person to commit such insanity?”
“Anyone’s capable of murder, given the right circumstances and motivations.”
“Most people have a moral compass.”
“And this guy’s compass was very broken.”
Ellie looked thoughtfully at Alec. “Stop being so nice to me, it’s frightening.”
Alec smiled. “I like to surprise my co-workers.”
“No, you don’t.”
“No, I don’t.” Alec extended an arm to retrieve a mug of cooling tea from his desk. “What do you think of Sherlock’s version of the events?”
Ellie pondered on what she recalled from Sherlock’s statement. “He stated that Moran was John’s deceased wife’s brother. His wife, Mary Watson née Morstan, passed away in some accident abroad, but Moran was convinced John and Sherlock had gone and assassinated her. Sounds like Moran was delusional, but we’ll have a more detailed profiling soon enough, I suppose. Um, he wanted to kill John while Sherlock watched. Psycho. I mean, the guy killed four kids.”
“Yeah, well. I did a little digging this morning. You do recall that Sherlock forged his own death years ago. James Moriarty took his own life on the rooftop of St Bartholomew’s and Sherlock threw himself off said rooftop to his apparent death.”
“Did you know he made Dr Watson watch?”
Ellie did not. He made John watch his suppose suicide? “I read John’s blog before they arrived. He didn’t know Sherlock had survived the jump until Sherlock came back to London. Okay, it is a little strange, but what does this have to do with our case? Oh, Sherlock said Moran was re-enacting a previous interaction between himself and Moriarty, there’s the connection. So, he was now going to make Sherlock watch while John fell.” Ellie shivered. Sherlock must have had good reasons to do what he had done; John had confessed to have been angry at him after his return, but now things were good between the two men. Nevertheless, Moran had used that particular traumatising scenario to play with them. Psycho indeed.
“Right. But it doesn’t stop there. Dr Watson got engaged and married to Ms Morstan and resumed working alongside our favourite consulting detective after his return to the world of the living. About a month after the wedding, Sherlock was shot in the chest by an unknown perpetrator in the offices of Charles Augustus Magnussen.”
“In the chest?” Ellie recognised that name. “Uh, Magnussen? The media guy that was mysteriously killed at home?”
“The very same. Stories surfaced on how Magnussen was blackmailing some high-profile people in the government; no wonder his death is mysterious. But that’s not the interesting bit. The interesting bit is Mary Morstan.”
Ellie frowned. “Why?”
“Why was her maiden name not Moran, Miller?” He paused dramatically. “Because she didn’t exist. There was a Mary Morstan, a stillborn child, dead for many years now. This woman took on a new identity. And there’s no Moran sister anywhere I looked. Granted, it might take a little more digging, but … if I would have to guess, I’d say her previous existence was erased.”
Ellie gaped at him.
“And,” Alec continued, “she gave birth to a baby girl last January whose father is not Dr John Watson. The girl is now with the biological father; Dr Watson did not dispute the paternity. Five weeks later, Mrs Watson dies in an accident.”
“Oh my god.” Wheels turned in Ellie’s head. She didn’t want to quite believe it but … all pointed to Sherlock’s and John’s involvement in Mary’s death. But who had Ms Moran been, then? Why would she need to have her life story disappear, a new identity created in its place?
Alec sighed. “This story is a mess, and I am too sleep-deprived right now to make sense of all the information. In the end, since Moran is dead, it matters little.”
“Who shot Sherlock?”
“He and Magnussen claimed the shooter wore a balaclava. Dr Watson was in the building but did not see the shooter at all. I just find too many coincidences in this muddle.”
“Do you think it was Moran?”
“I’d bet my life on it.”
A fleeting thought crossed Ellie’s mind on whether they needed to clarify which Moran, but she decided to not press forward on that point. “Well, as you’re saying, since Moran is dead, this hardly matters. It’s not like we can prove much. It gives us context, but do we need this particular context?”
“Are you saying that we should not mention any of Ms Morstan’s – Moran’s – backstory?”
“It’s little more than suppositions, and not directly related to Sebastian Moran’s killing spree.”
Alec considered this. “You are right. For now, we let this rest. I have the feeling that what John and Sherlock did – if they indeed did it – was not without a stronger motive than revenge for infidelity. Maybe they simply did what others had not the courage to do.”
This triggered something else in Ellie’s mind. “Who was Tom with last night? He won’t tell me.”
Alec bit his lower lip and took a deep breath, caught wrong-footed with the change of subject. “Joe.”
Ellie felt coldness spreading from her stomach. She stared at Alec, incredulous.
“He’s gone now. Left the town for good. I doubt he’ll try to contact any of us again.” Alec exhaled, dipping his head to his chest.
Ellie shook her head and gripped the armrests. “Wh-what did you do?”
“Told him to piss off. He went away, then I called you.”
“I thought the fourth victim was Tom. When I glanced at the photo, the kid, he. He looked like Tom.”
“God, Ellie, I’m sorry.”
“Instead,” she finished with a ragged breath, “it’s yet another family destroyed.”
John buried his toes in the warm sand. He sat facing the sea on the small beach just west of the pier, arms around knees, thinking. He wasn’t the type to dwell in what-ifs, but the previous night’s events hung heavily on his mind.
After the arrival of the cavalry, John had insisted that he was fine and would not need further medical assistance. This had not prevented Sherlock from behaving like a mother hen, repeatedly asking if John shouldn’t go to the hospital anyway (John didn’t think a few scrapes warranted a trip to Dorchester), wondering about what he had been injected with and its long-term effects (John reassured Sherlock he was shaking off the last of the neuromuscular blocker, and that there were no long term effects, and ‘for Christ’s sake, Sherlock, I’m a doctor, I know these things’), checking the burn mark around his mouth caused by ripping off the silver tape (not much to do about that except to apply some ointment), or rubbing John’s wrists to help restore blood circulation.
It was not lack of gratitude for Sherlock’s care – it was just disconcerting to see him so terrified. John had made a calculation when aiming for Sebastian Moran’s calves with his bound legs, and in that equation, an unknown variable weighed heavily: how close he had lain from the edge of the cliff. The momentum brought on by the kick could have thrown his upper body backwards and into a plunge to certain death.
But John had not hesitated, not when Moran aimed to fire at the intruders of his little theatre of horror. John would fall, if that was necessary to give an advantage to Sherlock who would undoubtedly tear Moran apart and save himself, Ellie and Alec. Fortunately, John had been far away enough to not roll off the cliff, and Sherlock had swiftly gathered him into his arms and pulled him into safety.
John would have sacrificed himself; of course he would have. And that was why Sherlock had been terrified. The bitter irony was not lost on John, and he was going to drink from this experience as often as needed to keep at bay his lingering resentment for Sherlock’s jump. The small pang of anger that sometimes surfaced was now carefully pushed towards Moriarty and his machinations.
John curled his toes rhythmically; the sand shifted under his feet. It was late afternoon; the day had been thankfully cooler, and a few wispy clouds wandered the sky above Broadchurch. Good to soak up some healthy sunlight without risking sunburn, he mused. The sun slowly dove towards the cliffs off Lyme Regis a few kilometres to the west.
The soft crunch of footsteps coming close caught his attention. Sherlock plopped down to his right, keeping his eyes fixed on the ocean, and mirrored John’s pose. John kneaded his left shoulder and glanced at Sherlock: the sunlight brought out auburn highlights on his dark curls, and his eyes reflected the colour of the ocean, blues and greens chasing each other. He was impossibly beautiful and would look perfect if it wasn’t for the worried frown curving his soft mouth downwards.
Sherlock broke the silence. “I didn’t realise. Well, I knew, of course. I imagined too often what would happen if Moriarty’s henchmen would find out I was still alive. Regrettably, I am cursed with a far too vivid imagination.”
John dropped his hand, looked back at the sea, and let Sherlock continue: “But I was caught unawares by the depth of despair as a witness to your imminent fall. And that is something I will never be able to erase.”
“I am sorry, Sherlock. But hey, I didn’t fall. Still here to bug you into eating and sleeping.” John elbowed Sherlock playfully, in an attempt to lighten the conversation.
“That is beside the point, John.”
John nodded. He understood – there were images that would never disappear from his head, no matter how long he lived, despite apologies and forgiveness. Sherlock’s outline against a grey sky atop Barts and his flight to the hard pavement were forever etched in John’s memories.
“I hear you, Sherlock. But. This is how our life is. We do things that expose us to danger. We accept this as part of the work.” John paused, measuring his next words. “You were rattled by the, the, situation yesterday, but. For what it’s worth, it just shows to me how much you care. And as long as we care for each other the way we do, we’ll be alright.”
Sherlock exhaled a shuddery breath. “Yes. We’ll be alright.”
“Time to go home; did you pick up our stuff at Ellie’s?”
“Yes, John, I accomplished the incredibly hard feats of fetching luggage, buying train tickets and checking out the rental car. Dull.” John smiled at the lack of heat in Sherlock’s words.
More hushed footsteps sounded behind them. John looked over his shoulder to see Alec and Ellie approaching. He chuckled at Alec’s mildly disgusted expression directed at the sand that infiltrated his shoes; Ellie carried her pumps in her left hand.
“Having a last look at the famous sunsets on the Jurassic Coast?” Ellie quipped.
Before John could answer, Sherlock interjected, “Quite so, Miller. One last breath of disgustingly fresh air before returning to the familiar exhaust fumes and malodourous alleys of London.”
“Ah, I die of envy,” Alec answered. Sherlock glanced back and smirked at him.
“Oh, come on, Sherlock. I can’t get Alec to call me ‘Ellie’, but at least you could try.”
Sherlock rolled his eyes in mock exasperation and faced the ocean again. “Fine. Ellie.”
John looked down at his watch. “Ah, might have to miss the sunset. If we want to catch the train, we should be getting on the bus to Weymouth in ten minutes.”
“Nonsense, John,” Ellie interrupted, “we’ll drive you to Weymouth, of course. It’s the least we can do.”
Alec turned to her with a raised eyebrow. “We?”
Alec turned back to Sherlock and John, cleared his throat and nodded decidedly. “Of course. We will.”
“Thank you.” John smiled and turned again to face the sea. “Maybe we can catch the sunset after all.”
They watched the passing waters of the English Channel, cocooned by the cry of seagulls and the soft crash of waves ashore. There would be time for more statements and goodbyes and unanswered questions. But for now, the Broadchurch cliffs, ablaze with the last rays of golden sunlight, framed their silence.