“Oh, Sherlock… oh, you’re already here. That is—” A flush the exact shade of her lipstick flares out of Molly’s frilly collar all the way to her hairline. Coffee sloshes over the rim of her cup. A new one, sporting a picture of that cat of hers, Toby. Wincing, whether from pain or acute awkwardness is open to debate, she hastily puts the cup down on a workbench. Sherlock rips a swathe from the paper towel dispenser and offers it to her.
“Oh, oh, thank you, Sherlock. I was expecting you of course, because… well, you said… Just, I wasn’t expecting you so soon,” blabs Molly, fretfully patting her hands.
Reasoning that offending her at this point won’t serve his objective, Sherlock plasters his most genuine smile to the corners of his mouth. “The wonders of modern transport will never cease to astonish humanity at large,” he murmurs. “You rang and – intrigued by your report – I hastened here as fast as a London cab would carry me, which, it not being the rush hour, took only the ten minutes I’d estimated.”
“Er, yes, I suppose.” After a last distracted swipe at the lab bench Molly bins the towels. “You don’t want coffee, do you?” she asks, hope bubbling in her voice.
“No, I don’t,” he replies and decides on deliberate uncouthness to propel them out of this limbo of sexual longing and expectancy he’ll never meet, even if he’d so desire, “what I want is a look at the corpse.”
“Oh,” Molly gasps, followed by a quick circuit of blushing, blinking, gaping and fumbling with the pen in her breast pocket before mercifully switching to full working mode. “Of course.”
After a fortifying swig of coffee she motions for him to follow her into the examination theatre where she hands him a pair of nitrile gloves before snapping on a pair herself. Sherlock heaves a silent sigh of relief. This Molly: quick, efficient and with a finely honed intelligence that often anticipates his demands, he can at least relate to.
The body is already laid out on the slab. Next to it stands a small platter with a tissue sample. Its scorched appearance has Sherlock huff under his breath, perhaps in unconscious relief at the state of his own lungs which is bound to be infinitely better.
“Didn’t know you run a side-line as a roadwork engineer, Molly. Are you sure that isn’t a piece of the M25 on display?”
Molly giggles. The next instant her hand flies up to her mouth and her eyes widen in shock at her indelicacy. “Yes, it looks horrible, doesn’t it? The poor woman must have been struggling for air every second of her life. Here,” she turns and lifts a closely printed sheet from the bench at her back, “this is a list of her daily medication. And she was on an oxygen tank, of course.”
“Obviously,” Sherlock agrees, eyes flitting from the list to the skin under the woman’s nose, which even in death looks slightly inflamed from the hoses’ constant rub. “And she never so much as looked at a ciggie?”
“So her children claim and well...” Molly gestures at the woman’s hands. “Evidence seems to support them.”
Sherlock whips out his magnifier to inspect the nails and skin of the woman’s forefinger and middle finger. “She could have cleaned them regularly,” he observes.
“Yes, but then the skin would be more brittle, even if she’d applied moisturiser ten times a day. I left them untouched for your inspection but I can take a skin sample if you want.”
“Yes.” He walks around the slab to the woman’s left side and takes up a study of that hand, thankful for the gloves shielding his own, which he gave a thorough treatment yesterday evening, from Molly’s view. “Remarkable.”
“Teeth too,” Molly says, moving to stand next to him. “They’re her own by the way. Quite a feat for an octogenarian.”
“The Vietnamese diet contains little sugar and is considered one of the healthiest in the world,” Sherlock informs her. He pockets the magnifier and bends fully at the waist for a good sniff of the woman’s hands. “Unlike these scented candles you seem to have taken a liking too. What is it with women that they always want the house to smell as if they’ve just engaged in a baking marathon? Isn’t that against the feminist creed? I told Mrs Hudson to get rid of the things. John and I had to fight our way through a choking miasma of artificial vanilla whenever we went up the stairs to our own flat.”
“What?” Molly squeaks. “I never…”
“No, wait.” He wards off her protests with a flick of his fingers. “It isn’t you, it’s her.” Coasting the back of the woman’s hand with his nostrils he feels the body’s clammy coldness seep into them like a fifth column intent on dulling his olfactory receptors. Beneath the veneer of death and a stay in the mortuary freezer lingers a trace of – Sherlock hurries through his inventory of odours; sets with their sub-sets and neatly classified sub-sub-sets – a trace of…
“Incense,” he exclaims. “Here, smell,” he urges Molly, pulling at her arm to induce her into a closer look, or rather, smell.
“Wha… oh, all right.” Tentatively, wrinkling her nose, Molly stoops and sniffs. “Can’t say…” She tries again, the force of her inhale ringing around the room. “Oh yes. Now I do smell it. It smells exactly like my friend Cora’s place. She’s into Buddhism and…”
“Yes, yes,” Sherlock interrupts her. “I’m sure she is. Where are the rest of her lungs? And we should examine the trachea.”
“I took just the one sample. But if you’ll wait I can…” Molly is already in front of the instrument cabinet, sliding open drawers. “Would you like to watch?”
What he would like is to collect the samples himself but since she was reprimanded for allowing him to trash a corpse she has rebuffed all his attempts to touch her patients with any instrument but his hands… and he’s pulled forth every trick in his book to convince her otherwise. Deep down she’s a stubborn creature. Good for her but sadly rather unfortunate for him.
“You’re more than capable, Molly,” he demurs. “I’ll set up the tests in the lab for us.”
Night has blackened the lab’s sole window by the time he scribbles the last note into his Moleskine and slams it shut with a satisfactorily loud thud. “That will be all for now. I’ll have to do some more reading first, but it looks like another stimulating little treatise to publish on the website. Thank you for calling me, Molly. I can’t remember the last time I had such fun.”
Molly looks a little doubtful at his definition of fun but her eyes, dulled from five hours of relentless work, acquire a mischievous twinkle and a tiny giggle escapes her.
“It’s very interesting,” she affirms. “You could be on to an important discovery. Fancy me being busy with poor Mrs Nguyen for hours and never even thinking of smelling…”
“Taste and smell are grossly underestimated when it comes to collecting evidence,” lectures Sherlock. “They’re the least understood of our senses, yet affect us strongly and play an important part during development and when it comes to storing memories in the brain.”
“Yeah, like comfort food,” Molly smiles, a little wistfully. “Perhaps she burned so much incense because it reminded her of home. It must be strange living here after Vietnam. The climate so different from ours, it’s in the tropics, isn’t it?”
“Not all of it. And climate is but one factor in shaping us.”
“Yes, well, I still think it’s sad she was essentially roasting her lungs with incense. Once you’ve finished your research you should contact the Department of Health for an awareness campaign. I’ll ring Cora this evening and tell her she’d better bin all the incense she’s got. She’ll be so disappointed but still.”
Sherlock snorts. “As if any government campaign has ever stopped people from satiating themselves. My ridiculous brother is a prime example of the superfluity of those health crusades. He’s the one who organises them and who stuffs himself with cake at every opportunity.”
“He doesn’t get a lot of those then,” Molly retorts. “Judging by his figure.” Her hand is already fluttering in front of her mouth before the last line has properly left it. “Oh,” she gasps, embarrassment colouring her cheeks an unattractive beetroot. “I haven’t…”
“…been ogling my brother,” Sherlock finishes the sentence for her. “Why Molly, nothing to be ashamed about. He’ll be pleased someone fell for the corsetry ruse.”
“Oh.” Molly’s shoulders slump in such acute misery Sherlock has to ball his fists to keep his fingers from reaching out and touching her. His nails’ edges drive sharp crescents of pain into the flesh of his palm.
Why does she insist on taking his every remark to heart and not just ignore them like most people do? “Look,” he tries, “forget what I said. Today we’ve opened a new field of research in life-shortening pollutants. All Mycroft has ever done for science is add proof to the first law of thermodynamics; detracting from the heating bill of offices sprinkled around Whitehall by planting his enormous behind in their chairs.”
“Oh, Sherlock.” She shakes her head but a smile tinges the corners of her lips. “Sometimes you’re plain silly. And I still think the public should be warned.”
Sherlock shrugs. “Be my guest but you’ll be wasting your breath. In my experience there’s no better judge of the stupidity of bad habits than the people indulging them.”
Sherlock pulls the front door shut and, as per Wright’s insistent instructions, turns his key twice in the lock. Any moderately competent burglar will still pick it in less than fifteen seconds but the landlord sports the annoying habit of swooping down unexpectedly upon the premises to find fault with his tenants and today Sherlock lacks the energy for a shouting match over mere futilities. Not with the last one just three days ago when the nosy parker busted their fridge and threw half of the contents away, claiming the leaking milk cartons and opened tins of beans were damaging the interior.
The sky above his head looks as dead and leaden as ever over this part of London. A light drizzle, of the kind that’d soak you to the skin were you stupid enough to brave it without protection for more than thirty minutes, loiters over the pavement and darkens the road’s tarmac. Streaks of wetness run down the houses’ soot-blackened brick facades. The windows, some of them boarded up, others rendered sightless by drawn curtains or ragged sheets hung in front of them, appear to weep, as they’ve every reason to.
Shivering in his too-thin coat and driving his hands deep into his pockets in vain search of warmth, Sherlock hurries in the direction of Roman Road. According to the calendar, autumn is still three days away but Sherlock has been feeling cold for weeks. His trousers’ cheap fabric rubs the backs of his knees irritatingly with each step. They make him blend in admirably well with the surroundings but the permanent discomfort is driving him round the bend.
Although the walk is less than a mile, Sherlock’s so chilled by the time he slinks into Bethnal Green tube station that the prospect of spending half an hour packed as tight as a pickled gherkin in one of Cook’s jars with a host of reeking bodies in a train carriage almost cheers him.
Slipping his wallet back into his coat’s inner pocket his fingers brush the stiff square lodged against his heart. After weeks of composing the letter in his head he’d finally taken the tube into the city in search of a stationer last Saturday. Mr Talbot’s former pupil may be following a crash course in lowering general living standards but Sherlock will inform him of the event on good quality paper, not the inferior stuff that draws blots from any pen put to it like a freshly laundered shirt hanging out to dry in this dove heaven’s warren of nooks and crannies inevitably attracts a squirt of guano.
The assistant of the Mount Street shop he’d entered had warily tracked his wanderings from one display case to the next. When he’d finally addressed her his voice’s pitch and clipped vowels had miraculously replaced her chary scowl for a servile mask oozing with desire to please her customer; indicating she’d be happy to beat the rags for their best deckle-edged paper to a pulp with her bare fists should he demand so. Sherlock had disappointed her with buying two sheets of that particular paper, one envelope and the cheapest Parker ballpoint they stocked, which set him back a hefty twenty pounds (quid he mentally corrected) he couldn’t really afford, but was considered a mere pittance in those stately premises, barely worth totalling up on the cash register.
Changing trains at Oxford Circus, he hauls the hood of his jacket over his slicked-back curls, pulling the rim low over his forehead. Keeping close to the walls he traverses the station, gaze flitting everywhere from beneath lowered lashes to take in the corridors flowing with shoppers, tourists, pleasure seekers, the advertisements lining the tunnels, and, especially, the camera consoles mounted high and out of the reach of vandals and other riff-raff.
Two days after arriving in London he first spotted a camera. His mind had instantly flown back to that dull hour whiled away in Mycroft’s office, crumbling biscuits on the Chesterfield and leafing through Mr Boothby’s tedious prose lauding the merits of surveillance. Behind each of those cameras he imagines Mycroft with his eye fixed to the lens in a perpetual search for Sherlock’s face amidst the seething cesspool of humanity spilling across London’s streets day in day out.
He discerns two new ones and fixes their location on his mental tube map. The cameras are cropping up everywhere increasingly fast, though mercifully he hasn’t seen any near Cyprus Street yet. The authorities are likely reluctant to install their expensive equipment in an area where it’s destined to last a very short time. With his decision to take up residence in a less salubrious quarter, Sherlock has effectively withdrawn himself from Mycroft’s scrutiny.
The area around Burnt Oak tube station is the epitome of placid suburbia. For an instant Sherlock is back in the train whose wheels put more distance between him and the home that was his home no more with each turn. He’d travelled to Bristol first, hid for a few days in a cheap hotel and slowly made his way to London after, crisscrossing the Midlands several times. Every city and village the train passed bore its own shell of unattractive boxes posing as houses, perching behind the pathetically small patches of land that served the homeowners for a front garden. It was hard to imagine people living in such conditions. In Bristol he hadn’t slept at all, kept awake both by his grief and by the ribald hilarity ensuing right beneath his window into the early morning hours. He’d tried burying himself beneath the covers but the sheets’ coarse fabric scratched his skin and the unaired blankets scoured his nose and throat with vestiges of dust that had withstood a lifetime of scant housekeeping.
The name of the street he’s been navigating is Gervase Road. From now on it will be etched in his mind for the rest of this life. After passing four letterboxes Sherlock halts in front of the fifth one and lifts his letter to Mr Talbot from his pocket. His fingers caress the heavy, curiously soft handmade paper for what feels like a long time, half a minute at least. Then, heaving a deep breath, he drops the envelope into the box. There’s a dull thud, followed by a rustle of sliding paper.
“Goodbye,” Sherlock whispers. With quick, angry jerks he wipes at the tears blurring his vision as he starts on the trek to Colindale station. It’s quite a way but he’s made it a rule to revisit the same spots as little as possible, especially in areas with so little people milling about.
16th September 1994
Dear Mr Talbot,
By now Mycroft will have informed you I ran away from home. I hope the news didn’t distress you too much. Please, Mr Talbot, you’re not to worry about me. I am well, though not happy, but, given everything that happened that’s hardly to be expected.
Apologies for having dawdled such a long time before writing to you. I’ve kept off doing so for this will be the last letter I will be able to send you in a while. With this letter I take my leave of you, my dear and most-beloved and respected tutor, for now, that is. Hopefully we’ll meet again one day, when you’ve no longer any obligations to your employer and I don’t have to be on the run from Mycroft any longer. Even in my present surroundings I never feel truly safe though I couldn’t have found a better nook to hide myself if I’d searched all over the country.
Dearest Mr Talbot. You don’t want to know how often I’ve recomposed this letter in my head. In the end I decided to just sit down and let it all flow, as if I were talking rather than writing to you. I’m afraid this letter will be nothing but incoherent rambling. As you’re my oldest, and my only remaining friend (Mr Whitall is decent and amiable but not a friend) you’ll forgive me. My mind is in a whirl ever since Mycroft told me about John’s death.
Has Mycroft told you what he’s done? How he waited for two weeks before informing me of John’s death? Has he told you what Mummy has done? Mycroft doesn't even know what was in that box so he can’t understand the enormity of her crime, but I do. Do you remember how John was always fiddling with wood and how once you told me I shouldn’t pry in John’s secrets? He was making busts, Mr Talbot, busts of Daddy. I once saw one quite by accident and it was beautiful. Those were in that box, together with a photo album from before Daddy’s marriage and some photos from after. Do you have a copy of that photo of the four of us in the orchard? I have a copy in my school trunk and John had another one. That was a good time. Because she was in the madhouse then, where she belongs. And now all those good times are gone, and the busts are gone, and the photo albums are gone because she had to ruin it. That’s all she’s good at, ruining everything.
Dear Mr Talbot, even you, even if you could write back to me, which you can’t for I’m not forwarding an address, even you wouldn’t tell me to have patience and forgive her, forgive Mycroft. I can’t. I won’t! Mycroft explained and I can even understand his decision but it was the wrong one and he should have seen that and he should have rung me straightaway and collected me so I could have said a proper goodbye to my oldest friend and the man Daddy loved so much. I no longer consider Mycroft my friend, nor my brother though we may be tied through blood bonds and are the sons of the same father. Daddy would have despised his actions and upbraided him. Oh, if only he were alive still none of this would have happened.
Please, Mr Talbot, I know it’s pointless to exclaim ‘if only’ and at seventeen I’m far too old to give in to such vain notions but these last few weeks my mind has done nothing but repeat those words. I remember saying, after Daddy died, I hated Daddy for having done his duty and going to London when he promised to stay home for my birthday for it would have meant he would have been alive still. Sadly I don’t remember whether it was you who corrected me, or poor John – and I realise only now how terrible his grief must have been and yet he couldn’t show it openly. And now I remember you arranged for him to sit next to me in the front pew at the funeral. Oh, thank you, Mr Talbot, you truly are the kindest and best of friends. John must have been so touched. Thank you on behalf of my friend. Anyway, I was reprimanded, and justly so, and of course I didn’t mean it but everything would be so much better if Daddy were still alive.
For he was my father, unlike Mycroft, much as that cretin that is no longer my brother likes to pretend otherwise. I’m completely and utterly through with him. He laid his cards on the table and I quit the game. Idespise him! He’s nothing but an interfering machine, always calculating what’s the best approach towards solving a particular problem, whether it is to do with his work, Mummy stirring trouble, or me. But I’m not one of his stupid government projects. Unlike him, and our awful mother, I do have a heart! Together they managed to nearly break it. I’d rather be out of the equation. Now they’ve nobody left but each other to torture and I hope they’ll be very happy together. Nanny doesn’t count. Apologies for sounding dismissive but as long as her precious Valerie is happy, she is happy and I’m angry with her as well.
Oh Mr Talbot, I’d give anything for the chance to speak with you, even for no more than five minutes. I have discovered whose son you’re tutoring. I know where you live. Don’t worry, I won’t approach you because you don’t want me to. Even if I were desperate enough to defy your wishes I’d think twice before doing so after the afternoon I spent in the library browsing newspapers for information on your employer. For all his wealth he strikes me as an uncivil and nasty character, very much unlike the gentleman Daddy was, so I deplore your dependency on such a man’s whims and having to tutor his child for a living. At least the boy is likeable, and the mother, or so John thought. Funny how our family was the other way round. I hate my mother, Mr Talbot. I loathe her with a passion akin to the hate Electra bore Clytemnestra. There, I’ve written it down and I’m not ashamed for it’s true and she hates me as much besides.
As for my future; so far I’ve no firm plans. I have found work and housing which serves for the present. I’m still reeling from John’s death. A month ago I wrote to Mr Whitall to explain and apologise for haring off after him going to such lengths to secure me a place in the Academy. If you say I’m being profoundly stupid I can’t but agree with you. I know I’m failing Daddy, and Mr Mancini, and you and John, but Mr Talbot, right now there is no other way. I must regroup my thoughts and reinvent myself and stay under the radar while I’m at it.
You’re perhaps one of the few people not working for the government or the police who’ll understand the implications of modern computers on our lives. Computers are getting smaller and smaller and they can store more and more information. Mycroft has people working for him to deal with the legal implications of the government spying on us twenty-four hours a day. I saw the files in his room last winter. You may think me paranoid, but I’m really not. And that’s why I’m not giving you my address. Not because I don’t trust you, Mr Talbot, you’re the only person left I know I can trust one hundred percent. But I don’t trust Mycroft. He’ll have the post intercept your letter to me and put someone near the letterbox when I collect my mail and so I can’t, however much I’d like to.
Dear Mr Talbot, the place where I’m currently living is so godawful and the people are so coarse and obnoxious and the streets are always filled with so much noise. It’s far worse than school ever was. My employer is more or less okay, and so are the boys I share a house with, even though one of them is as sex-obsessed as those idiots in school. But at least they don’t drink as much as the rest of the people here seem to do. Honestly, I didn’t know such a place could exist and I don’t see why people would want to live like this, like animals.
I see I’ve nearly reached the end of the sheet. Apologies for this letter being such a dismal one. Hopefully when next we correspond I’ll have heartier news to share with you. Just three more years and you’ll be free to meet me. I do look forward to that moment with all my heart.
Meanwhile I remain my dearest, dearest tutor,
Your more than ever devoted pupil,