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Animum debes mutare, non caelum

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“So, what exactly are we doing here?” John enquires, but his tone is affably indulgent and the look he sends Sherlock from beneath the dripping umbrella screen is both trusting and patient. Which means Sherlock is still very much in his good books.

***

Earlier that week Sherlock saved the day and the lives of two young girls in yet another family kidnapping tragedy. What is it with people and their messy divorces becoming a trending topic of late? The mother’s Facebook page was a torrent of virulent acerbity and verbal abuse of the children’s father, littered with misguided attempts at solace and equally dubious encouragements from so-called ‘friends’. Initially the father had struck Sherlock as slightly more sensible – the man didn’t sport a Facebook account for starters – until they’d learned he didn’t exactly mince words while denoting to his colleagues and pub mates what he’d like to do to the nasty b— that was his ex. The kidnapping had ended with Sherlock and John bursting into the dilapidated shipyard shack where the man was bending over his daughters’ small frames, filling their pockets with stones while downing the remainder of the Zopiclone tablets he’d used to drug them first.

Case solved as far as Sherlock had been concerned – barely a three in his opinion. When Lestrade had come to ask for assistance, Sherlock’s first urge had been to rebuff the request as a matter of course. He was about to huff that he didn’t consult for the Met’s Lost and Found Department when Mrs Hudson’s quivering bottom lip persuaded him to leave the flat and find the girls; he even submitted to the enormity of actually going with Lestrade in a police car.

An ambulance carted the girls to Barts’ A&E to have their stomachs pumped while Lestrade escorted the father to Broadway with John and Sherlock following in a cab. At the Yard, Sally’s crumpled face set the alarm bells in Sherlock’s head ringing. Triggered by Sherlock’s stream of deductions about the mother’s abusive new boyfriend, who’d promptly rewarded this performance with an attempt to punch Sherlock in the face, she’d made good use of her time digging through the man’s past. Not that she’d had to dig deep to confirm that the boyfriend had indeed spent the lion’s share of his adult life as a guest of Her Majesty for his inability to keep his hands to himself. Dreadful base innuendo definitely fully intended.

Figured, really, given the man’s slovenly tied laces.

“Those children can’t go back to the mother. Not with that absolute creep living there!”

Gone was the competent Detective Sergeant, always prone to slag Sherlock off for unprofessional behaviour. That version is unpleasant enough but one Sherlock can cope with. Women verging on the cusp of hysteria are a different matter entirely. Too many unpleasant associations. Lestrade and John shared an uneasy glance.

“Donovan,” Lestrade warned but the outer corners of his eyes drooped, always a sure sign the DI isn’t happy with the situation himself.

“Sir— Greg— you can’t!” Sally wailed, eyes flicking round in search of a supporter and settling on John straight away. John, who was looking concerned, because he’s John H. Watson, ex-army doctor and he always looks concerned when confronted with people unable to defend themselves.

“The dad seemed a decent enough bloke. Although I suppose—,” John suggested tentatively, but Lestrade wiggled his wrist and groaned, “Not a chance in hell.”

“Well, you’re the police. You’ll think of something.” Sherlock leapt from the corner of Lestrade’s desk where he’d been perching and clapped his hands together. “Come on, John.”

“Sherlock.” There’d been a warning in John’s voice. Not quite a growl but a hint of displeasure all the same. Even more ridiculous was the echo of the sentiment radiating from Lestrade’s face.

“What?” Sherlock demanded, genuinely bewildered and rounding on the DI. “What else do you want me to do? I’m a consulting detective which means I basically do your job while you sit here gossiping and letting your brains atrophy from sheer idleness. It’s not like I’m offering babysitting and protection of idiots’ offspring against their atrocious progenitors. Not on my website and neither did I find any such advertisements on John’s blog last time I looked. Surely there must be some government agency for all that? Guidance for the braindead public or a total moron caretaking department stuffed with overbearing nosy do-gooders and worse?”

“Of course there are,” John snaps. “But these girls are severely traumatised and in the short term they’re not going to benefit from a stay in an institution, no matter how kind and well-meaning the staff may be.”

“Oh, so you suggest we take them home then? Have Mrs Hudson pamper them with tea and biscuits?”

“No, Mrs H has enough on her plate already,” John deadpanned, which provoked Sally into an oafish little snigger of her own. Which meant she was back to normal at least. Thank God for small mercies. Sherlock glowered, first at her and then at Lestrade who at least put up a pretension of struggling with the smile on his face. Really, the pair of them were insufferable.

“Oh, for God’s sake.” Fishing his mobile from his pocket Sherlock pointed his most withering glare at Sally, mentally injecting it with the deadliest venom in the collection hidden at the back of 221B’s left-hand kitchen cupboard. After three rings Mycroft answered the phone.

“What is it now?” he sighed. “You found those children, didn’t you?”

“Naturally,” Sherlock replied archly. ”But Sergeant Detective Donovan—” here Sherlock indulged in gracing the odious woman with another scornful glare, “—and John have latched onto the notion that through finding them their care has somehow become my concern.”

“And you can’t have that.” Mycroft’s chuckle lacked all sense of merriment. “Responsibility for another human being. Now, what’s that expression you’re so fond of? Ah yes, not really your area.”

Struggling hard to stifle the irritation mounting in his chest, Sherlock added a pint of clotted cream to his tone. “Mere courtesy on my part, brother mine. Paying tribute to your fondness for meddling and sticking that spiky gob of yours where it’s definitely not wanted.”

“Your current approach towards charming others into doing your bidding fails in several aspects. If you behave very well I may be willing to offer a few pointers in the right direction. Luckily for you, two unsavoury files landed on my desk today. Nothing too difficult, not for you that is. Fraud and extortion, rather tedious. All we need is to acquire the actual proof…”

Mycroft didn’t continue the sentence but let the suggestion hang heavily in the air. If nature’s laws had permitted, Sherlock would have dragged his brother bodily along the signal wave so he could strangle the pretentious bore right there and then. Succumbing to reality and the blackmail he gritted his teeth instead. “Fine. But I’m not collecting them.”

“They’re being delivered right now,” Mycroft replied, not bothering to suppress the infuriating smugness that dripped from his voice. “Consider your little problem solved. I look forward to reading the blog post.” With that quip he rang off.

Sherlock glowered at his phone and violently shoved it into his coat pocket. “Mycroft is dealing with it, happy now?” he almost snarled at John.

In half an hour, a social services official contacted Lestrade for the girls’ details. A couple in their early forties, tried and tested through many years of putting children back on their feet again, were already on their way to Barts’ A&E. John gave Sherlock a look of profound gratitude and even Sally’s leave-taking had lost much of its usual acerbity.

***

Three days later, Sherlock is still milking this fortuitous outcome of the case. The files with the dull misdemeanours of Mycroft’s boring minions lie gathering dust atop the cabinet on the landing, where Sherlock can continue to ignore them.

Despite the weather forecast, John readily consented to the casual suggestion of a stroll. By the time they reached Great Eastern Street a frown had settled between his eyebrows but Sherlock managed to whisk that away with the suggestion of lunch.

Although three years have passed since Sherlock got the man’s son off a charge of stealing from his employer, Mr Kubar’s eyes lit up when they entered the small Libyan restaurant. Spreading his arms wide in welcome the man hurried towards them and practically bowed them to a table, whose frail legs were soon staggering under an astounding array of dishes from which mouth-watering aromas wafted and tickled their olfactory nerves. All through the meal Mr Kubar kept popping up to recommend a particular delicacy and shower Sherlock with an embarrassing show of obligation. If it hadn’t been for John’s almost equally loud praise of the food and the amusement crinkling the corners of his eyes Sherlock would have left halfway through.

At long last they were allowed to depart, with many an entreaty for a speedy return.

“That was amazing,” John said. “Best meal I had in months. So, what do we do now? Back to Baker Street?”

“Not really,” Sherlock answered, heading in the direction of Anning Street. “Don’t worry, we’re nearly there.”

Appropriately, Bethnal Green Road welcomed them with a fine pitter-patter of rain. Sherlock delved into his coat pocket and produced a folding umbrella, which John accepted with a huff and a pointedly lifted eyebrow.

“Is this for one of those cases of Mycroft’s?” he asked.

“No, but all will become clear soon,” Sherlock promised.

***

“So,” John says, once he’s let Sherlock’s explain the objectives of their excursion. “We’re going to call on a woman you met briefly more than fifteen years ago? And you didn’t bother to phone first and check whether she’s in.”

“She is,” Sherlock replies. “You know my methods, John. I’ve done my research.”

Given the old village’s central location in modern London Sherlock has of course revisited these streets plenty of times since traipsing down them on a scuffed pair of trainers. Fittingly, each trip featured a form of precipitation from the wide range the English climate stocks. So much so, he’s gone as far as to check whether Bethnal Green is indeed cursed with more than off-chance adverse weather conditions. Today the rainfall, slowly but undeniably saturating the Belstaff’s fibres, carries an almost benign aspect, which Sherlock can’t remember encountering before. Perhaps John’s gentle presence has a moderating effect on the atmosphere. An entirely ridiculous notion, obviously. Scientifically impossible, in fact, but the idea has the corners of Sherlock’s mouth quirk in amusement.

Meanwhile John appears oblivious to the enormity of this undertaking, or rather, the significance of Sherlock inviting John along. Apparently for John, being taken into Sherlock’s confidence comes part and parcel with their sharing a flat. He seems to assume Sherlock has already deduced his whole past, from six-year-old John’s terror as his father started smashing the furniture again in a drunken rage right down to the disastrous Benidorm holiday that ended with Harry breaking up with her girlfriend and seducing John’s to prove a pointless point. Actually, Sherlock has done exactly that, in addition to putting the time John insists on flitting away at the clinic to good use. He’s spent hours sifting through the meagre assortment of boxes and John has stashed in the attic and the contents of his wardrobe drawers and the suitcase underneath his bed. From these Sherlock has probably gained a deeper insight about John Hamish Watson’s triggers and life choices than the man himself has at disposal.

Which would have been incredibly dull if it had been anyone else.

Perpetual rain notwithstanding, the swell of gentrification is sweeping over this area as irrevocably as the incoming tide that rolls up the Thames twice a day. It’s an infection spreading across the tight ring of piss-poor boroughs hemming in the City on the East and South. Cosy cafés with pretend seventies wallpaper and the requisite tall ficus benjamina have sprouted along Old Ford Road, organic grocery stores and tiny boutiques catering to the sartorial fads of the ecologically challenged. Several pubs have even gone to the trouble of adorning their façade with hanging baskets. True, the trailing lobelias and petunias seem locked in an endless struggle for some nice unpolluted carbon dioxide, but then, Mrs Hudson would likely declare with the undeterred optimism perfected over thirty-two years of marriage to a serial adulterer and murderer that it is the thought that counts.

Somehow, after trudging along street upon street of sham respectability the sight of their ultimate destination comes as a relief. Hammering at the grey clouds like an angry fist, as dark and insurmountable as a medieval fortress, the towers rise from a sea of trodden turf speckled with dainty little atolls of rubbish. An impromptu Atlantic wall of sodden mattresses provides a formidable bulwark against snooping intruders or well-meaning altruists foolish enough to believe the towers’ inhabitants would profit from a little polishing.

John blinks but then he follows in Sherlock’s stride, skipping along from one islet to the next until they arrive at the third tower’s front door. Its lock has been picked so often the tumblers fall into place the instant Sherlock inserts his lock pick. Inside, the hall lights have been smashed. There’s a lift with a notice stating it’s out of order that was put up over eight months ago judging by its state of deterioration and the draught patterns that are swirling between the boarded up windows and the front door.

“Tenth floor,” Sherlock says after a study of the name board and heads for the staircase that predictably reeks of stale piss and the clichéd plaques of vomit.

“Jesus,” John complains. “Lunch was an hour ago, Sherlock.”

“Not much more recent than whatever this was,” Sherlock comments, rounding a corner and confronted with a particularly pungent whiff of regurgitated stomach contents.

Their inverted descent into lower class hell meets an unlikely end. The surface of the doorbell resting against Sherlock’s glove was wiped four days ago at the latest, together with the woodwork of the door and jambs and the casement of the kitchen window to the right of the door. The frilly lace curtains behind the window are a dreadfully cheap and highly inflammable polyester blend but they’re spotless which means they’re washed once a fortnight at least as the kitchen is so small the curtains are dangling dangerously close to the hob.

During his search for her present-day whereabouts, the picture of her clinging to Tom’s arm was as sharp as his memory of that visit to The Camel. Thus, when the woman opening the door lifts her face to peer at him he’s confused for a quarter of a second, until the shifting half-light falls on the yellowish agate of her irises. The furrows lining her mouth belong to a much older woman.

“Yes, how can I help you?” she asks. At his side Sherlock feels John startle at the question’s civility. Blunt senses assaulted by the dismal abundance of poverty he’s never even spotted the clues this flat’s occupant is actively battling her class and former poor life choices.

“I’d like a word about Tom,” Sherlock answers, observing her narrowly for a reaction.

It’s immediate, a crimson flush dotting the sharp ridges of her cheekbones.

“I don’t know anyone by that name,” she says and starts putting the door to until it hits Sherlock’s foot that’s stuck against the doorframe.

“But you did once,” he tells her. “And a DNA test would probably reveal what his brother suspected, that Tom Peterson fathered your eldest. Now you know our business you might as well ask us in. John here definitely could do with a cup of tea and he isn’t particular so Tetley will do.”

***

“Why don’t you have another samosa, Edmund? I made them especially for you because I know you like my chickpea samosas better than anything.”

Mrs Chopra dumps another of the neatly folded triangles on a plate and shoves it under Sherlock’s nose with an uncharacteristic air of aggression.

“I’m worried about you,” she continues, ignoring Sherlock’s grimace. “You never had much meat on your bones to begin with but now you’re even skinnier, if that’s possible.”

Bangles jingling emphatically she circles Sherlock’s wrist with a chubby thumb and forefinger. “Your wrist is thinner than that of a Bihar peasant. You’re never going to find yourself a girl that way. Take an example from Keith. He knows what makes a woman happy.” She beams at Jojo who’s saved from commenting by the fifth samosa he’s just crammed into his mouth. That doesn’t stop him from looking daggers at Sherlock for the grief he’s causing Jojo’s surrogate for a loving Mum.

Once there was a time, and really, it’s but a few weeks ago, Sherlock not only didn’t mind Mrs Chopra’s attempts at stuffing him but actually enjoyed her cuisine. He’s spent enough time in Cook’s vicinity to appreciate fresh produce and high-quality condiments and the ample love and hours invested in cooking a meal that pleases the eye and nose while satisfying the taste buds. tickling the sense of smell. Mrs Chopra’s cooking supplies all of these in abundance but since he began shooting up in earnest the mere idea of consuming anything but toast and weak milky tea makes his skin crawl.

By the time Mrs Chopra rolls into the shop on a tumultuous wave of tiffin boxes, extraneous chatter and aggravating concern the salutary effects of his morning hit have long worn off, leaving him irritated and restless. He tries distracting himself with work but his fingers, which were flying deftly between the boxes of spare parts and the printer he’s currently fiddling with a few hours ago, have turned twitchy and uncoordinated over the course of the morning. He desperately wants another hit. Instead he has to endure Mrs Chopra’s lectures and Jojo’s glares while literally sitting on his hands for fear their random twitching will draw unwanted attention.

Worse than the lectures and the glares are the reproachful hangdog looks Jojo keeps shooting him whenever he thinks Sherlock’s attention is directed elsewhere. He obviously hasn’t the faintest about coke’s stimulating effects on any brain, let alone one already as switched-on and hyperactive as Sherlock’s. Even during the afternoons, which easily match the grimmest hours Sherlock suffered at school, Jojo’s surreptitious glances set his back aflame.

Yesterday evening Sherlock declined to accompany Jojo to their Bartitsu class. This had earned him a disgruntled scowl that clashed so violently with Jojo’s usually cheerful appearance Sherlock would have laughed out loud if he hadn’t been too intent on squirming out of the kitchen and up to his room where half a packet of fags and another carefully prepared syringe awaited him.

Daniel had declared himself impressed by Sherlock’s dexterous handling of the needle and the undaunted concentration of his fingers as he pressed the plunger.

“You doing that is a whole new definition of sexy, Edmund darling,” he’d whispered in Sherlock’s ear, mashing his crotch against the small of Sherlock’s back.

“Don’t,” Sherlock had snarled and shoved at him and Daniel had flopped onto the sofa cushions, giggling, pushing his legs up in the air in glee and swinging a flaming red spike heel sandal from an elegantly stretched big toe.

“You’re such a sweet little tease, Edmund,” he’d taunted or words to such effect for Sherlock had ceased listening but was riding the high that whipped through his body and fired up his brain.

Bearing up with the mind-numbing drudge that’s an excuse for existence is so much easier after a shot. The cocaine glowing in his veins amply compensates for Jojo’s and Mrs Chopra’s useless worrying in addition to the trepidation he has to battle every weekday afternoon. If only the drug wasn’t so outrageously expensive in addition to being so highly addictive. He’d complained to Daniel about the (his, their) dealer ripping them off but Daniel just had laughed and rubbed some of the white powder onto Sherlock’s gums, a gesture both too unhygienic and disgustingly intimate for Sherlock’s liking and he’d batted Danny’s finger away from his mouth. Besides, rubbing cocaine onto your gums was akin to entering the fast lane into the dentist chair with a set of false teeth at the end of the journey. Given that risk – and the lesser high – it was a stupid thing to do.

Apart from that, rubbing and snorting are such primitive means of applying the drug, lacking finesse. There’s a certain scientific satisfaction to the elaborate ritual of preparing the solution and drawing it into the syringe. Watching the level rise in the small tube. Drawing a belt tight around his arm and pumping his fist to bring out the veins.

And then…

…nothing, nothing on Earth, from Mummy’s dull pills, to swimming, to solving one of Mr Talbot’s intricate puzzles to playing the Guarneri while basking in the fierce glow of Mr Mancini’s warmth, can compare to the liquid bliss suffusing every nerve in his body and igniting the synapses in his brain until he wants to shout with the joy of simply being alive.

He hates the stuff.

He loathes his body for its weakness and the speed at which it has capitulated to an external stimulant. Until now he’s cherished his physical brain almost as much as the mind it houses. His wits helped him through the daily atrocity that was life at school and in dealing with his mother’s vicious mood swings. His cleverness is a suit of armour and a source of satisfaction. In demanding a constant renewal and increase of dosage, in virtually refusing to function properly and command the rest of his body like it has always done as long as Sherlock hasn’t fed it a fresh round of stimulant, his brain hasn’t merely forsaken him, it has stabbed him in the back.

Small wonder Sherlock hates those long afternoon hours in the backroom of Mr Chopra’s repair shop with the ants crawling under his skin. The insistently loud and regular tick tock of the mechanical clock on the wall behind Sherlock slowly but certainly drives him mad. Whoever designed this particular time-keeping device unwittingly created the twentieth century version of Chinese water torture.

Retreating into what’s left of his mind doesn’t work. Firstly, constructing anything bigger than the gatehouse is almost beyond his current capabilities. In addition no matter how many new foundations he painfully constructs next to the cellar where Mummy lies buried, how many steep flights of stairs he builds leading to endless corridors that end up at the bottom of more stairs winding up hastily erected towers there’s no escaping the appearance of Mycroft in the last room he enters. Mycroft’s expression isn’t merely stern, it’s positively thunderous. Still, an incandescent Mycroft is infinitely preferable to chancing upon the projection of John or Mr Talbot or Mr Mancini, Cook and even Nanny. They all look infinitely sad with Cook invariably opening her arms in an invitation to hide at her bosom. Nanny’s mouth is twitching, a sure sign she’s about to start scolding him, but her eyes are soft and liquid.

More than anything Sherlock dreads the encounter with Daddy. For Daddy wraps Sherlock in his arms and lifts him, as effortlessly as if Sherlock were still a six-year-old, and he’s rocking Sherlock and shushing him and telling him he doesn’t mind Sherlock has been naughty because he knows Sherlock can do better when suddenly an explosion shakes the building. Sherlock plummets to the floor, covered in the blood and scraps of bone and flesh that made up Daddy less than half a second ago. Scrabbling to his feet he flees the structure, straight into a wall of lamb curry and aloo gobi aroma wafting from Jojo’s mouth.

“Must you?” he enquires in the iciest tone he can muster and peels Jojo’s clammy fingers from his forehead.

“Jesus dead ’angin’ Chris’, Eddy, you’re blubbin’,” Jojo asserts and lets his hand drop, defeat dragging down his shoulders.

“I hate tha’ vile buggah,” he adds. The set of his mouth conveys that he knows he’s lost Sherlock, lost what Sherlock realises is the only friend Jojo has ever had.

Sherlock screws his eyes shut and grits his teeth. Under different circumstances – if he’d bumped into Jojo at school for instance – Sherlock would not have minded the acquaintance. He might even have encouraged it for the inquisitive mind hidden beneath the homely exterior, so preferable to the blunt understanding of his fellow pupils. There’s a down-to-earth tenacity to Jojo, a determination to succeed, no matter how low the odds. At school he would have been the perfect sounding board. But here, in the backroom of Mr Chopra’s shop he’s nothing but yet another inconvenience to be endured. Which is wickedly hard without a sustaining shot.

The stage at which Sherlock still lamented his stupidity at succumbing to the poisonous mix of boredom and curiosity has long since passed. Whatever coaxed him into agreeing to Daniel’s suggestion for Sherlock to give in to his impulse is no longer important. Whether it was a doomed experiment in restraint or misguided bravery, the point is moot.

Fact is, soon after waking Sherlock decided he can’t make it through another afternoon on his morning dose. So first thing after arriving he headed for the miserable outhouse at the back of the building that serves them for a toilet and buried a syringe beneath one of the loose floorboards. He’d let his hand rest on the scuffed wood for an instant, telling himself he could still choose not to go there after lunch.

This is another step away from the goal he’d set for himself on the now fast approaching sixth of January. If… when he digs out the syringe he’ll be taking another step back from the confrontation with Mycroft and the demand for his inheritance. Whatever else he may have discarded, his sense of shame has been drilled into him too thoroughly by that kindest of tutors.

The thought of confronting Mr Talbot in his present state is so horrible Sherlock doesn’t even want to contemplate it.

“Mrs Chopra’s bloody ’angin’ righ’,” Jojo comments, bitterly. “You’ sta’vin’ you’self to death, Eddy.”

***

Well, perhaps he’s lost some weight but Daniel assures Sherlock this actually works in his favour as they sit discussing additional means of support for Sherlock and his addiction.

Brian’s – boyfriend, lover, flame? – has taken up semi-permanent residence at Cyprus Street, claiming the house is much more conveniently located to his place of work than his own flat. Sherlock grasps why Danny – with his elaborately styled coiffure the colour of a bright-hot fire and his shocking pink three-inch heels – is more than happy to put up said heels on one of their kitchen chairs rather than showing them off at the more hostile environs east of Bow Creek.

On one of his long Saturday rambles back in August – during that brief period he was the sole master of his own life – Sherlock ended up close to the complex of tower blocks where Danny claims he rents a room and observed the area and the people scurrying about with a mixture of fascination and revulsion. Scruffy jeans, worn hoodie and well-trampled trainers notwithstanding Sherlock still stood out from the locals like a fashion advertisement for a Jermyn Street tailor’s flirt with pop culture. Watching the throngs of tiny figures swarming up and down the buildings and scrambling over the wasteland surrounding the towers he’d wondered how people could bear living packed so closely together. Sherlock counted the number of flats crammed into one floor and calculated the floor space of each apartment. Compared to the outcome, that awful dorm room where he’d been incarcerated with the abominable Warburton and Pleasance and miserable Edward seemed as large as the central hall of the Science Museum.

A bin bag released from the top floor exploding into a chaos of greasy food wrappers, mouldering leftovers and broken glass but four feet from the tips of his shoes had woken Sherlock from his reverie. Tilting his head into his neck he’d felt a chill slither down his spine as he caught sight of his assailant’s face. Was this creature with its wisps of unkempt grey hair clinging to a sickly white scalp a human being, like Sherlock, or a ghost of a farmer murdered long ago in this very same spot? He’d instantly dismissed the notion for the nonsense it was but pivoted on his heels nonetheless and fled to Cyprus Street’s more affluent surroundings. Their tiny, grubby kitchen had almost felt like home that evening.

Now Sherlock is sitting in that same kitchen with his face buried in his hands. Jojo has run off to his room in disgust after yet another shouting match, Brian is thumping his dumbbells and the neighbours are pounding the wall with a broomstick and yelling for him to stop. Normally the racket would drive Sherlock to despair but he already reached that stage an hour ago as he checked his cache of pound notes. A mere eleven fivers was all he scooped out from behind the loose brick in the corner at his bed’s headboard, where he’d counted thirty-two just a week before. Wright will come collect the rent in three days. And his remaining stash of cocaine is barely enough to last him another two days.

If only he’d manage to wean himself of the stuff, same as he’d weaned himself off the pills for the sake of his exams. That had been so ridiculously easy. Will power had sufficed to overcome the distress signals his body had transmitted to his brain. Whatever will power he’s ever harboured has vanished without a trace – diluted as diligently as the working ingredients in a homeopathic draught by the sequent shots inserted into his veins.

If only…

Sherlock swings his head from side to side, as if shaking it will chase off the poisonous fog of despair clouding what’s left of his ability to think. A tinny traitorous voice tells Sherlock all his troubles can be over in the two hours it will take him to walk from Cyprus Street to Connaught Street and deliver himself into Mycroft’s hands. It might be unpleasant, the voice whispers, but you know Mycroft’s anger will burn off faster than a gasoline-soaked stack of hay.

Which is true but Sherlock refuses to eat crow and Mycroft will expect him to apologise for creating unnecessary hassle that would have been avoided easily if only Sherlock would have consented to staying put until the crisis had been dealt with so they could have talked over the situation like grown-ups. That realisation already contains too many stipulations for Sherlock to assess properly – especially given the fact that the effect of his last hit is already tapering off. But that’s Mycroft in a nutshell, always expecting the best of others, and invariably failing when confronted with a delicate situation. Sherlock outright refuses putting up with the inevitable look of disappointment Mycroft will cast him if he winds up at the glossy black railing guarding the immaculate white front of Mycroft’s residence. In addition Sherlock still hasn’t forgiven Mycroft for treating him like an irresponsible child incapable of managing his own life.

If only…

Well, you haven’t exactly made much headway so far, another voice, sounding suspiciously like Nanny’s, advises sternly.

“Shut up,” Sherlock growls and digs the heels of his palms so hard into his eye sockets the kitchen explodes in a starry haze of brightly coloured fireworks.

Over the past few weeks the knowledge he’d hit this point sooner rather than later has been his constant companion, even simmering in the back of his mind during the few hours of sleep he snatched some nights. Every time he sat counting his steadily decreasing stack of pound notes, every time he stood haggling with the shifty individual that supplied Sherlock and Danny with ‘the fuckin’ best snow this side of the ocean’ his mind skipped frantically between possible sources of a larger income than Mr Chopra’s meagre wages.

He wasted a whole afternoon at Harrods observing a gang of shoplifters at work, safe in the knowledge Mycroft would rather forgo a helping of Cook’s apricot cake than be caught roaming that mansion of faux-luxury and bad taste. The gang’s leader was a thirty-something brazen woman whose Italian accent was so end-of-the-pier Sherlock was amazed none of the personnel staffing the counters alerted security the moment she opened her mouth. The elderly assistant in the Norwich department store who’d scrutinised his cheque so suspiciously would never have fallen for the act Sherlock considered idly while his attention honed in on the pseudo Italian’s accomplices. There turned out to be five of them, revealing themselves by a shammed nonchalance that made Sherlock shake his head in dismay over people’s stupidity.

Keeping an eye out for security cameras and the plainclothes security guards attempting to blend in with the crowds of gaping tourists amongst whom mingled a few genuine shoppers Sherlock followed in the gang’s wake on their survey of the wares on offer. They ended up at one of the in-store women’s fashion boutiques that seemed to specialise in particularly flimsy and lurid attire. Both Mummy and Nanny would spurn the fabrics’ sub-standard quality and crinkle their noses over the slipshod stitching but Sherlock send a mental salute as he scanned the price tag hanging from a sleeve before beating a tactical temporary retreat. By now he’d watched enough shop windows, and women and girls lingering in front of those with a faraway look in their eyes, to realise three out of ten would jump at the chance to get their hands on a blouse or dress displaying that particular designer label, no inconvenient questions asked.

In front of a mirror he mussed his hair until his curls sprang free from the thick coat of cheap hair product he’d slicked them with, flipped up his coat collar and imagined he was staring down the despicable Fyfe-Rief. The effect was like donning a cloak of time-hallowed privilege. A salesclerk bustling his way, determined on telling yet another loitering skiver to skedaddle, skidded to a halt and almost dropped a curtsey when he pivoted and gauged her through drooping lashes.

“Can I help you, sir?” she breathed. Behind the woman’s back the gang was busy loading a wheeled clothes rack they’d procured from a fitting room with the most expensive items. They picked out a garment, pretended an interest before changing their mind and deposing the piece on the rack. Nothing in their bearing indicated a sense of unease. Sherlock couldn’t help but admire their sang-froid. “Anything you’re looking for in particular?”

“Not really, no,” Sherlock drawled, refraining from rolling his eyes over his accent’s lowering effect on the woman’s already deferential slump. “Unlike those people over there, it seems.” He nodded in the direction of the rack, which was by now bulging with clothes. The woman followed his gaze in time to catch the helpers dispersing like a pack of wolves slinking away from their kill at the alpha male’s approach – the ersatz Italian, rigged out in modest shop assistant garb replete with a nametag pinned neatly atop her chest and hurrying out of the fitting rooms with a purpose.

“Bu… but,” the woman stuttered, her blush deepening as confusion was replaced with comprehension.

“Yes,” Sherlock confirmed, against the sudden pang of nausea tightening a fist around his stomach. “That man over there is security. Best warn him.”

He turned and fled towards the stairs, careful to retain his arrogant posture even as he fought the convulsions gripping his throat. Upon reaching the staircase Sherlock pulled up his hood and checked the area for cameras before allowing himself to collapse against the wall. What on earth had he been about, assuming he could pull off thievery?

Sherlock had never had any qualms about nicking Mummy’s pills, especially as the drawer was brimming over with a fresh collection every time he opened it. On the Tube into the city centre he’d ratiocinated stealing from an anonymous entity like a warehouse was different from robbing Mr Chopra’s down at heel shop but the woman’s reaction had made him see the error of his theory. Hundreds of people depended upon the giant for their livelihood and in swiping its wares, no matter how insignificant, Sherlock would be endangering their jobs for the sake of feeding his dependency. Every trace of honour left in his soul bristled against such depravity.

He briefly toyed with the notion of offering his services as a security guard who was actually up to the job. For it had been fun pursuing the thieves across their hunting ground and learning their tactics. But that line of work had never been a viable option, even before he’d picked up an expensive habit. Sherlock still hadn’t the faintest about average wage levels but it seemed unlikely those of a security guard would be top of the range.

Rather than catching the Tube back to Cyprus Street Sherlock decided to walk, winding a way down the maze of alleyways and backstreets that made up London’s nervous system and remained blessedly free of CCTV surveillance.

He’d cast his own die and thus it befell to him to deal with the consequences.

***

Easier said than done, especially when the moment of truth is still weeks away. But no matter how many tears he spills, they won’t offer a solution. There’s nothing for it but to face the music – and dance.