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A Freak Adventure

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“Sally!” A flurry of long limbs explodes from the front door to wrap itself around Sally. “You made it! Dad said—”

“Yes, yes, I know,” Sally smiles, embracing her niece’s slender frame. “I told your Dad there was a tiny chance I’d have to forego your birthday but luckily London’s criminal classes have been behaving themselves and my DI told me to hop it. Happy birthday, sweetheart.”

“With you here it’s even better,” Susy says, in the candid manner that makes her Sally’s favourite niece. “Come in, I don’t want that pissing rain to ruin my new blouse. What do you think?”

Head high, she struts down the hallway, whirls and comes striding back towards Sally, as confidently arrogant as a model on a Paris catwalk. The blouse is a glitzy purple, cut impossibly narrow, which, together with the slim hip-hugging black trousers tricks the eye into adding at least another inch to her height. Not that Susy is short to begin with for a fifteen-year-old. And Sally has to admit the impossible colour suits her, adding a rich glow to Susy’s lovely milky coffee skin.

“Nice,” she compliments. “Made the pattern yourself, did you?”

“Yes. Mum bitched about it endlessly, saying it’s too tight.”

“Yes, well, that’s what she’s supposed to say, being your Mum and all. She’s secretly proud of you.” Susy’s Mum, Debbie, is a positive needlework enthusiast – a good few of her creations have made it into Sally’s wardrobe – who’s instilled a love for everything to do with clothes and fashion into Susy at an early age. The girl had announced her design of becoming the twenty-first Century’s Coco Chanel shortly after she turned ten.

Though Sally grants dressing smart is a deplorable yet elemental part of the profile of capable professional she’s built through years of dedicated hard work, any interest in clothes continues to elude her.

Anyone first meeting them would wonder why aunt and niece got along so well, seeming to have so little in common. A huge part was attributable to the fact Sally had just turned fifteen herself when she first held Susy in her arms – the little sister she’d never had. Being the youngest of a family of eight equally headstrong children Sally learned to give as good as she got at an early age. Now, as she looked either backwards or straight into the eyes of some yobbo in the Met’s interrogation room, she silently saluted her siblings for their relentless teasing, at last able to acknowledge the underlying current of real affection that still knitted them into a tight family. Susy, the first grandchild and first niece, had been a magnet for everyone’s love but Sally had doted on her from the start.

Little Susy was so clever, rascally tigering across the floor before she was seven months old and saying her first word – ‘Mu’ – at just nine months. Not so little anymore Susy is honest and brave and doesn’t hesitate to use her fists in defence of her brothers, the nine-year-old twins who are the bane of her life. She’s fun and – best of all – she has spunk, a trait Sally is always ready to admire in anyone. Her bloody-minded determination to get accepted at Central Saint Martins reminds Sally of the battle she’s fought for a desk in NSY’s offices and she encourages the girl as much as she can, reasoning true passion is the key to success.

“But you don’t think it’s too tight, do you?” Susy pouts.

“I think you look smashing,” Sally grins, waving her present in front of her niece’s face. “So, purple is the new orange, I take it?” She’d double-checked when Debbie had texted a present suggestion. The likelihood of Debbie being amiss regarding colour codes was small but Sally distinctly remembered the raptures about the virtues of one particular shade of orange over another she’d been submitted to last month, when she’d taken Susy to the cinema and been instructed to admire her ‘apricot’ and ‘orange peel’ outfit.

“It’s not just purple, it’s veronica,” Susy lectures, tearing at the wrapping. For a moment Sally fancies she isn’t standing in her brother’s hallway but back at the Met, gritting her teeth while the Freak pontificates on the one essential detail all of them had missed, obviously, because they’re all morons, obviously, and he had snatched upon straightaway because… well, that’s why he’s the Freak, isn’t it?

The spell is broken by the wrapping paper’s gentle flutter to the floor and Susy’s little jump into the air.

“Oh, Sally. Yes!” she exclaims, as happy as Larry in purple La La land. “Thank you.”

Inwardly, Sally shakes her head while exhaling in relief. She’d rolled her eyes reading Debbie’s text. A phone cover, what kind of present was that? Surely they didn’t believe the Met paid that bad, did they? With a sigh she’d started up her computer and pulled up amazon.uk. There her bafflement had shifted into outrage at the item’s price tag which trod a thin line between a rip-off and downright robbery.

“Forty-five quid for a phone case?” she’d yelled at the screen. Her own case had cost her less than two and been servicing her very well for almost three years, thank you very much. Never mind the cover was handmade from granulated leather tanned in the highly coveted veronica hue with a neat finish. Sally had closed the screen in a huff, only to immediately open it again in order to buy the damned thing, muttering invective for the whole two minutes it took her to complete the transaction.

Now, with Susy’s joy right under her nose she concedes the forty-five quid may have been a good investment after all. “Hey, it’s the same shade as your blouse,” she notes.

That moment her brother opens the door to the living room. “Susy, where’s your manners?” he chides his daughter before turning to Sally and spreading his arms wide. “Hey, sis, give us a hug.”

“Dave.” Sally is happy to comply. Clasped in her eldest brother’s arms she spots Susy making an escape out of the corner of her eye. The girl looks mortified at this open display of affection between two grown-ups and Sally smirks, remembering all too well what it felt like, being a teenager.

“Debbie was sure you’d turn up. She saved you a slice of her raspberry cheesecake,” Dave says as he sweeps Sally into the living room where the whole Donovan clan is assembled. Thirty pairs of eyes swivel in their direction. “Look what escaped from the Met’s premises,” Dave proclaims, raising Sally’s hand high above her head.

“Don’t be such a plonker.” His wife hurries to the rescue. As if Sally needs rescuing, she’s been handling the geezer for thirty odd years.

***

Later, happily ensconced with a glass of ace Merlot – Dave is a bit of a wine enthusiast – between her youngest brother and his latest fling, who’s emerging as less of a woolly woofter than the last few Percy had dragged in from the obscure night clubs he frequents, one of the twins pops up out of nowhere.

“Hi, aunty Sal,” the boy yells, thrusting something into Sally’s face and nearly knocking her glass from her hands. “Look what Sue got for her birthday.”

“Rodney!” His sister is on the boy in an instant, snatching at what Sally now sees is a deerstalker in herringbone tweed. In fact, it looks conspicuously like… Sally’s eyes rove along the silky purple material of Susy’s blouse and down the girl’s black-trousered legs. That cloth, what’s its name, baby-cord, isn’t it? Her memory races back to the first time she encountered the Freak. He’d been sitting in Lestrade’s office, cool as a cucumber in his poncy suit, levering himself upright as if it were the most odious task in the world to give her the universe’s limpest handshake as Lestrade introduced them. She’d taken an instant dislike to the man, despite the treacherously sexy covering. His inky curls just tickled the back of the collar of his suit. A black baby-cord suit. Thanks, Debbie, for the education.

Susy is still hovering in front of them, as panic-stricken as a deer caught in the headlights, and clutching the conspicuous evidence of her fancy, but tenderly, so it won’t crease. The despicable Rodney, nasty deed accomplished, already has made good his escape. Now it befalls to Sally to say something properly soothing and mature, except her tongue feels like it’s fastened to the roof of her mouth with a nail an inch long. Anger and resentment are boiling into a frothy poisonous brew that threatens to overtake Sally. Her own niece, fangirling for the Freak, Jesus bloody Christ.

Thankfully not so woolly woofter Reg proves himself to an even better catch than Sally had gauged him to be.

“Gosh, that bloke is a looker if ever I saw one. Did you clock that photo in The Daily Mail last week? Those curls, fanny sweet arse, aren’t they just to die for? Which might be your only chance of having a go at him if that blog is to be believed. Still, a boy can dream. Or a girl. It’s only natural.” He winks at Susy whose face and neck have acquired a red hue that clashes violently with the purple of her blouse. Jerkily, she nods at the three of them, turns on her heel and runs off, no doubt in order to find Rodney and strangle the imp. Her abrupt movement jolts Sally into action and she starts putting down her glass on a side table so she can jump up and go after the girl but two heavy hands descend on her knees and lock her in her chair.

“Uh-uh.” Percy shakes his head at her and Reg mimics him to perfection, also mouthing, “uh-uh”.

“Best not add fuel to the flames, Sal. You’ve made it pretty clear in the past you hate the guy’s guts and she’s clever enough to have learned the reason. But to her he’s just a pretty face with just the right kind of mystery to—” Here he glares at Reg who bats his eyelids at him. “So that’s why you’re always going on about my lovely curls.” Like the rest of the family, Percy’s head is crowned with a jumble of jet-black whorls.

“Ssh,” Reg hisses furiously and Sally laughs, deciding on the spot she does like the bloke and approves of Percy’s choice and will invite them to dinner. Her lasagna isn’t that bad and she can buy a cake at the Fleet River Bakery for afters.

These cheerful thoughts notwithstanding a sour taste not even the fruity Merlot can chase away clings to her mouth. She leaves the house a few hours later cursing the Freak for existing and troubling her even off-duty.

***

The time shortly after Sherlock Holmes first returned had been extremely awkward for Sally. They’d just regained a sort of woozy equilibrium, she and the boss. Philip they’d lost some three months after the Freak confirmed he’d been a fraud all along by jumping off Bart’s roof. She’d even cried when it was over, mourning the occasional stolen weekend, the hot quick fucks at the office or in the back of a Panda down in the NSY’s parking garage.

Soon she had precious little time left for tears, bungling over an abyss of worry for their professional lives together with Lestrade. A special commission fine-combed through all the cases the Freak had solved for them while she and the boss were delegated to a desk at the other side of the building. Lestrade wasn’t a desk man. Twiddling her thumbs in an office all day drove Sally mad as well, but the boss seemed to shrivel up with each working week until she feared that one morning she would enter the room to find nothing but a tiny withered husk in his chair. She’d always known her boss was the good, dependable sort, she admired him for it, never mind he’d fallen for those con tricks and she’d felt useless and been angry at the Freak all over again. And still Lestrade maintained Sherlock had been a genius and she saw it all wrong. The scandal was the final push to the shove for his marriage as well, though perhaps, as Lestrade remarked bitterly, it just provided his wife with the excuse she’d already been looking for. What maddened Sally even further was that the Freak had been right about that as well. Lestrade simply didn’t deserve this.

Four months later, all too mysteriously soon in fact, given the investigation’s stringency, Sally and Lestrade were called into the Super’s room. There they were told briskly their records were cleared and their names restored and they were back in the Met’s best books.

A cheer went up in the bullpen when Lestrade entered his glass cubicle again and Sally was welcomed back with many a ringing slap on her back. She was determined to resume her work pretending nothing had happened and was mostly successful, save for the occasional nagging suspicion their rapid re-instalment wasn’t a result of the sluggish natural workings of police red tape reaching an inevitable conclusion. One day she accosted the DI on the matter and he shrugged and mumbled something about ‘the brother’.

By now, of course, she knows all about the brother. Jeez, she has five of those and none of them come even close to… Sally feels a shudder creep down her spine comparing her brothers (even Tom, the odd-one out in their family with whom she has the least rapport) to Mycroft bloody Holmes. Creep indeed. The Creep and the Freak. Christ, she almost feels sorry for the parents who fostered the godawful pair.

But she’s a strong girl, and mature – unlike some – and the first time the Freak waltzed into Lestrade’s office after his spectacular return she went up to him and apologised, even going so far as to hold out her hand for him to shake in order to show she was willing to bury the past and start afresh. Hands stashed deep in the pockets of his plushy coat (which she’d swear she’d read he’d worn when he pulled that roof trick. Did he have a whole wardrobe stocked with the item?) his gaze ran over her outstretched limb until she let it drop at her side.

“Apologies accepted, Detective Sergeant,” he drawled and her previous hate and dislike flared up in a raging bonfire that began heartily consuming her inside out all over again.

And now Susy has fallen for the bastard’s dishy looks and the way the buttons of the PSoS (Sally picked up that particular epithet overhearing two giggling PC’s) barely manage to hold together the shirt’s fronts. True, any proper teenage girl ought to glorify some remote and unattainable celebrity. Leonardo DiCaprio had been Sally’s not-so-secret idol. She’d rerun Jack’s final scene endlessly on video and cried her eyes out every time he told Rose to never let go of that promise.

But that had been different somehow. DiCaprio is a film star and Sherlock Holmes is… a… a… an arrogant dick Sally wishes she’d never laid eyes upon and a massive pain in the arse who’s risen to fame because people with nothing better to do all day and no appreciation of honest police work read his former flatmate’s blog. He walks the same streets Susy does; they could literally bump into each other. Perhaps they should, for the sneer on his face would cure Susy of her infatuation at a rate of knots.

Sally sighs, staring at the wine she swirls around her glass as if the answer to her conundrum lies hidden among its ruby depths. On and off over the weekend she’s been pondering the problem. Poor Susy with her innocent teenager’s heart yearning for a psychopath and desperate to keep her crush hidden from Sally. Somehow, that realisation carries the real sting, a young girl, in some ways no more than a child really, grasping the fact that Sally loathes the hell out of someone. Someone she adores.

Really, the girl is incredibly delicate and reticent. In her place Sally would have been all over her aunt working at the Met and lighting upon the object of affection on a regular basis, badgering for inside information and, oh treasure of treasures, an autograph. Maybe Sally should go and ask Holmes for an autograph. On a handsome glossy photo. Except she won’t. She can just imagine the withering look of total disdain he’ll throw her. Christ on a bike, that’s the last thing she needs.

Sighing deeply again she takes a bracing swig of her wine. Not as nice as the stuff Dave pours his guests. She should ask him to buy her a box next time he rumbles off on his annual wine chateau tour aka the Dave Donovan booze cruise.

***

Three weeks later Sally invites Susy for a trip to newly-restored Eltham Palace. Together they fawn over the fabulous rooms and Susy runs wild with enthusiasm for Virginia Courtauld’s evening dresses.

“Just look at that ribbed silk,” she croons, clearly straining to finger the cloth. Her own dashing attire attracts many an assessing glance herself from other visitors, the more fashionably outrigged women pursing their mouths appreciatively. One doesn’t have to be the world’s only consulting detective to spot the similarity with the man’s garb. The black shirt and narrowly cut black suit Susy is wearing are an almost exact copy of the outfit Holmes sported when he sashayed onto their crime scene last Tuesday. Their suspect, not really a suspect with the overwhelming amount of evidence the Freak unearthed, is locked safely behind bars awaiting his trial. Sally told Susy she looked pretty as ever when she collected her and began a discussion on the advisability of booking them cinema seats for the evening.

All in all it’s a perfect day. The autumn weather holds and they ooh and aah over the colours in the Palace grounds before hitting the garden café for a well-deserved spot of tea. Back at London Bridge station they decide to forego the Tube and saunter down the South Bank to Westminster, aimless chatter flowing back and forth between them as seamlessly and easily as it’s always done. As if the Freak never existed.

On the train back home from Battersea that evening, having delivered Susy safely back in her parents’ home, Sally can’t contain a tiny sniff of release. Thank heavens that went well and it looks like Susy’s fad won’t spoil their relationship. She’s young, the next latest craze is no doubt already knocking on her door and in half a year she’ll be ashamed she ever yenned for the geek.

***

A cold blast hits London with a vengeance the following day. The thermometer plunges to a frigging minus ten Celsius at night and barely reaches zero by midday. Punitive squalls of snow and sleet lash out at anyone foolhardy enough to venture outside. After a few days of disruptive chaos the city repacks itself and a sense of normality returns. By Wednesday people trudge down the icy streets with the long-suffering practiced gait of Eskimos navigating North Pole Avenue, taking up a little more space because they’re enveloped in layers of wool from top to bottom. Even the trains run according to the timetable again.

The only crowd that appears lastingly affected by the wintry conditions are the criminal classes. The crime rate drops as spectacularly as the temperature. Which is all for the best as Lestrade is holidaying on the Scilly Islands with his new sweetheart. An opportunity for long walks and getting to know each other a little better, he’d said. In all probability, under these conditions, most of the reconnoitring is occurring between the sheets, and Sally sincerely hopes the boss is having the time of his life.

She puts the unusual tranquillity to good use by engaging in some much-needed filing. Steadily growing towers of manila folders stacked to overflowing with a veritable wood of paper have transformed the immediate environs of her desk into a hazard zone over the past few months. Lestrade joked about putting up a danger sign. Now, armed with a shredder and an enormous bin, Sally sets to circular-filing every scrap of paper they can do without. It’s extremely dull yet satisfying work, as dull and satisfying as cleaning the bathroom. She’s on the late shift, which has the advantage of less colleagues to distract her. On her desk her phone stays mercifully quiet for hours on end. By the time she calls it quits Sally congratulates herself on a job well done, with two cubic meters of NSY office space reclaimed on the invading army of dreary paperwork.

She’s just pulling her cap over her ears when her phone rings. It’s a bit of a fight freeing it from her pocket with her gloved fingers. Upon unlocking Debbie’s photo pops up. Sally frowns and checks the time in the phone’s lower right hand corner. A quarter past eleven. Debbie’s usual bedtime is ten o’clock as the twins habitually wake at six in the morning to start wreaking havoc on the house and each other unless their mother is on guard.

“Hi, De—”

“Oh god, Sal, thank god, it’s Susy,” Debbie butts in. The sound of a snivelling trumpet erupts in Sally’s ear and Sally realises her sister-in-law is crying.

“Susy? What?” she says.

“She didn’t come home after her bobbin lace class,” Debbie sobs. “She should have been home at half past nine at the latest but she never arrived. At first we tried not to worry too much, but at half past ten Dave tried to contact her and she never answered and then we got really worried and rang Laura’s parents.”

Laura is Susy’s best friend, living ten doors down from them. The girls have been as good as inseparable since the cradle.

“Laura was already in bed but they woke her up and she told us Susy had been behaving odd all day, constantly texting with a dopey smile on her face. When they were walking home she suddenly said she was going for a jog around the park. That’s… she knows the park is off-limits after dark. They both know, we’ve told them time and again. Laura said they had a massive falling-out. If only the foolish girl had phoned us the moment she got home, but no… that’s me being stupid—” The story erupts without Debbie pausing once for breath until nature forces her to heave some air into her lungs.

“Did Dave try to track her phone?” Sally inserts quickly.

“What? How?” Through her tears Debbie sounds as nonplussed by the perfectly ordinary question as a thirteenth-century gentlewoman tele-transported to the present in a fairy chariot. Often Sally’s wondered whether Debbie wouldn’t have been better off if she’d been born two centuries ago.

“Never mind. Where’s he?”

“Out looking for her,” Debbie blubbers. So he probably has tried to track Susy’s phone and drawn a blank. “He told me it was too early to alarm the police yet but you’re his own sister and you’re with the police.”

Which is all too true. Except, Sally is on the other side of London and Lestrade is stuck on a foggy isle in the middle of nowhere.

“Listen,” she says, decisively. “I’m on my way. I’ll phone Dave now. I’ll be with you as quick as I can.”

“Oh god yes. Thank you. I’m so glad I called you.”

You should have done so earlier, Sally doesn’t say. Time is of the essence when a person goes missing. She’s already sick with worry herself and swipes her contact list so savagely she misses Dave’s number twice in a row.

Stop it, she instructs herself. She’s a professional, dammit, and she ought to be better aware than anyone sentiment is a hindrance in her line of work. Sentiment doesn’t find people and solve cases. Oh god, she’s quoting the Freak in her head now. That’s the last drop…

“Dave Donovan.” The sound of her brother’s voice in her ear grounds her again. “Is that you, Sal?”

“Yes. Debbie—”

“I’ve walked the fucking park twice but there’s no sign of her. I’ve even checked beneath the fucking band stand!”

“Yes. Dave listen—”

“What’s got into the girl?” Dave bursts forth. “This isn’t like her. You know she’s a good girl.”

“Of course.” Sally swallows, realising her brother is picturing the same stream of gruesome scenes that’s parading through her mind. Susy raped and left for dead in the bushes, Susy raped and strangled to death, Susy raped and stabbed to death, Susy raped and...

“Dave, send me Laura’s number and go home,” Sally says. “Debbie needs you and there’s nothing you can do trudging through that godawful cold. I’ll be with you as quick as I can.”

“I can’t—”

“Dave. I’m your little sister but I’m also a Detective Sergeant at New Scotland Yard, the finest police corps in the world. Listen to me, just this once and go home to your wife. Now! That’s an order.”

Rather than dealing with his protests she cuts the connection and switches off her mobile. It isn’t compatible with the Panda’s standard car kit and she’ll be flashing a light all the way to Battersea. If she takes a car from the garage she’ll be with them in twenty minutes at the most. Appropriating a car for semi-personal use is totally against the rules but, Sally reasons as she hurries down NSY’s endless corridors, if Susy doesn’t turn up soon her disappearance will be a police matter anyway and in the end it’s the results that count. Isn’t that what the Freak is throwing into their faces every sodding day? Just look at what Lestrade and the CSI let get him away with. Because he produces them results, with his magic tricks, straight out of that sodding deerstalker.

Christ, if only the scuzzbucket weren’t such a total arsehole she’d run to him now, Sally thinks, blinking hard against the tears threatening to escape from her tear ducts.

She’s punching the cursed lift button over and over again (what’s keeping the bleeding thing, dammit), imagining it’s the Freak’s eye or that of the man who took Susy. For of course that’s what happened, though how Sally is at a loss to explain. This move is so not like Susy. At all.

Oh god, Sally needs help. They all need help. She needs Lestrade at her side, his quiet confidence and his steady voice assuring her they will find Susy and they will find her before…

And who will Lestrade turn to but his own personal sniffer dog, the person who’s better at joining the dots than any of them. He’s their best chance of finding Susy quickly. Their biggest chance she’s still…

Oh Christ, the Freak will be like a dog with two tails if she turns to him for assistance. Sally can feel her hands curling into fists ready to punch the condescending smirk off his face as she glares at the lift panel, willing the lift to go faster. But this is about Susy, Sally tells herself, not about him or Sally’s abhorrence of the atrocious git. She’s still convinced he gets off on it but he can wank himself into a stupor over Susy’s disappearance for all she cares as long as he finds her.

By the time Sally bursts through the door into the NSY parking garage she’s firmly stashed the last shreds of doubt. She’s going to bring in the cavalry and she’ll beg the Freak on her knees if that’s what it takes.

***

Driving a police car does have its advantages when one has to navigate the madness that is the London traffic in wintry conditions. Sally makes it to Baker Street in less than ten minutes. Above Speedy’s awning a thin sliver of light peeping through the curtains drawn over 221B’s windows raises her hopes the Freak may actually be at home. She’s been cursing herself for a blockhead for not phoning in advance since the moment she hit Broadway. To make up for her asininity she pounces on the doorbell, not lifting her finger until the door is yanked open by a fuming Mrs Hudson.

“What the heck do you think you’re doing, making such a hullaballoo,” Mrs Hudson begins, not a nice little old lady at all. Her face falls even further when she perceives who’s standing on her doorstep. “Detective Sergeant Donovan,” she adds in a tone rivalling the atmosphere for sheer frostiness.

The old woman dotes on her insufferable tenant. How so many perfectly nice and ordinary people come to hold dear one of the coldest and weirdest persons Sally ever met is likely to remain the biggest mystery of her life. But not her problem right now.

“Mrs Hudson,” Sally offers in the most docile and patient voice on record. “Is the… is Sherlock in?”

“Yes, he is.” Mrs Hudson steps aside and ushers Sally inside. “Can’t promise he’ll be happy to see you, though. I’m not going up with you, mind you. Ever since this horrid frost my hip has been giving me gyp.”

“I’m sorry to hear it,” Sally says, ascending the stairs to the flat. Halfway she pauses, remembering yesterday evening’s visit to her parents. They don’t dare venture onto the icy streets so Sally had done their shopping for them. “My Mum swears by woollen underwear. The trick is in keeping warm, she says.”

“Oh, I know,” Mrs Hudson replies, warming to the subject and the source of advice. “Your Mum should count herself lucky if woollen underwear helps. I’ve tried everything but nothing eases the ache, except for my herbal soothers. But those make me all woozy so I don’t dare take them during the day.”

“I understand,” Sally says. She’s negotiated the stairs and has arrived at the landing. Both doors to the flat are firmly shut. “Thank you, Mrs Hudson.”

“You’re welcome, love,” Mrs Hudson chirps. “And be a dear and tell Sherlock the biscuits are cooling on the rack.”

Gathering her courage in one deep heaving breath Sally knocks on the door leading to the living room and rather than waiting for an answer beards the lion in his den. She immediately catches sight of the Freak, stretched out fully dressed on the sofa and contemplating the ceiling with his hands tented beneath his chin, looking for all the world like a marble effigy on top of a tomb.

Disconcertingly, the gaze veers down from the ceiling to settle on her. His lips start curling upwards, in that derisive sneer with which Sally is all too familiar.

What startles her, however, is the feral snarl erupting near the fireplace. Sally’s head whips to the source of the noise just in time to catch John Watson surging from his chair like a fiend straight out of her worst nightmare, hell-bound on wreaking vengeance upon everyone who’s ever done him an injustice. What the blooming hell is the man doing here? Hasn’t he got a fiancée he should be spending time with instead of sitting here in his customary chair like the whole James Moriarty/Richard Brook debacle never happened?

“What do you…” he barks. John Watson may be a far cry from the world’s tallest bloke but up in arms and with hackles raised he casts a more menacing aspect than all the baddies in every Marvel film ever produced rolled into one. Sally is saved the humiliation of a tactical retreat by the Freak’s deep voice. Still recumbent he lazily admonishes his friend.

“Keep calm, John. Sally’s mind has never been further from kicking me in the teeth.” Jumping to his feet in one fluid motion he addresses Sally directly, “Family or friend?”

Of course he reads her like a book but she won’t waste time on resentment. On the other hand John seems less magnanimously inclined. In two strides, an actually impressive feat given the span of the man’s legs, he’s leapt right into the Freak’s personal space and is glaring up at him, the forefinger of his right hand almost poking Sally in the face.

“Sherlock, what… She betrayed you, don’t you remember? She and Anderson—” He’s almost foaming at the mouth.

“Please, John,” Sally starts, close to crying again. They simply don’t have time for this bullshit. Not now, when Susy’s life might be at stake.

To her astonishment the Freak cuts his friend short, staring down his nose at the rabid Jack Russell terrier yapping up at him. “And since Anderson has lost his mind and Sally has apologised. Much to her dismay but rather handsomely all the same. Case closed as far as I’m concerned. Actually,” and here he spoils the mixed goodwill his words invoked by a scornful lift of the corners of his mouth, “the fact she needed less than five minutes to decide she’d solicit my assistance shows she has accepted some unpalatable truths.”

“But Sherlock. She haunted you to… to…” John bellows. Rather than having a calming effect the Freak’s speech appears to enrage him even further. Perhaps years of flatsharing with the Freak have immunised him to insults veiled as demurrals and the sting of the handsome speech has bypassed him completely. His tightly balled fists show he’s about to go postal.

Early on in their acquaintance Sally realised there’s a nudge of anger hidden beneath the doctor’s innocuous exterior. After all, he was a soldier once and what is war but an opportunity to fly off the handle with the government’s compliments and no further questions asked. Not that she suspects John of having committed any atrocities. At heart he’s as decent a man as her boss is. But all that passion needs a vent. Sally’s solution was joining New Scotland Yard. With his army career literally shattered to pieces Sally understands all too well why John succumbed to the Freak like a fly to a honeypot. Any other time she’d applaud him for his staunch support of the Freak’s honour, maybe even his code of morals, but not now.

“John,” she says in the firmest tone she can muster. “Please, I understand why you’re angry and I do apologise and invite you to tear a strip of me any time but my niece’s gone missing and please…” The tears of worry and stress and humiliation resume their teasing. She blinks furiously in a bid at containng them but suddenly the sluice-gates open and she has to suffer the supreme degradation of crying in front of the Freak.

“Please,” she manages, fumbling in vain in her coat’s pocket for a Kleenex.

“Here.” The Freak’s hand appears under her nose, proffering a squeaky-clean handkerchief that smells faintly of lavender. She gawps up at him with the jittery confusion of a goldfish that’s been smacked out of its fishbowl’s comfortable confines by a sleek Siamese, expecting the monster’s elegant paw to extinguish its paltry existence with supreme indifference.

“Sit down and get a grip on yourself,” the sphinx commands. “John, one tea for Sally. No sugar, dollop of milk.” Whether it’s the quiet order, her releasing the waterworks or the Freak’s defensive consideration of her person, Sally doesn’t know but all the fight fizzles out of the doctor’s frame as suddenly as air escaping from a punctured tyre.

Sherlock ignores him and gestures Sally towards John’s chair. “You have five minutes.”

“It’s Susy, my niece.” Sincerely grateful he’s willing to listen to her Sally wipes at her nose, dabs her eyes, crumples the immaculate handkerchief into a messy ball of creases, accepts the tea with a woozy smile, and gives the shortest and most concise account possible of her conversations with Debbie and Dave.

Meanwhile the Freak whirls through the room, putting on shoes, pocketing his phone and gloves and donning his swanky coat. Folding his equally swish scarf around his neck he addresses John Watson, who’s struggling to get his left arm into the sleeve of his winter jacket, “Coming along then?”

The quizzical cock of his left eyebrow and lofty tone convey complete indifference to the answer. Ordinarily Sally would have fallen for the performance but her plea for help has evolved into a crash course in Freak psychology. Deep down the Freak – no Sherlock, the mere fact he’s agreed to help her find Susy means she’ll never dub him the Freak again, not even in her own head – Sherlock that is, is no different from anyone else, just better at hiding his own emotions and reading those of others. But then, most people’s faces are as easy to read as a book set with letters suitable for the visually impaired. John Watson’s, for instance, clearly conveys he hasn’t grasped Susy isn’t your regular teenager whose main aim in life is driving their parents up the wall.

“Of course,” he nevertheless replies gamely. “It’s going to be a headache getting a cab in this parky weather,” he adds.

“Oh, never mind,” Sally says. “I drove down here in—” She grinds to a halt, remembering Sherlock’s biased opinion on travelling in police cars. “Shall I give you my brother’s address, so we can start the search from his house?”

“Nonsense. One car is more efficient.” Sherlock shocks her by replying and for a second she’s tempted to accost him and demand what he has done with the Freak and where he’s hidden the body. But Sherlock/the Freak is already galloping down the stairs with John a close second and Sally’s the one left to shut the door to 221B.

“Mrs Hudson,” Sherlock shouts. “We’re going out. Might be back late. No need to wait up for me.”

“Yoohoo. Be careful, boys,” Mrs Hudson shouts back, the rest of her sentence cut off by the door falling shut and the cold slapping them in the face.

***

Sherlock eyeballs the Panda unhappily but folds himself into the passenger seat without comment; another novelty for Sally to reflect upon. Later, after Susy is safely back home again.

The second they’ve adjusted their seatbelts he holds out his hand to her, palm upwards. “Your mobile. I want to speak to the friend myself.”

“Here.” Sally uses her teeth to tear off her glove and fishes her mobile out of her pocket. “It’s locked. The code…”

Out of the corner of her eye she spots he’s already unlocked the device. “How…?” she gasps.

“He’s always done that,” John declares affably from the back seat. “Got even better at it during his time away, insufferable sod.”

Sherlock pretends to be too busy to pay the remark attention but the corner of his mouth is tugged upwards in a secret smile and something wrenches inside Sally’s chest and she suddenly understands why Lestrade is always telling her the best means of handling the man is treating him like a child.

Another piece to the puzzle, Sally concludes as she starts the engine, throws the flashlight switch and puts the pedal to the metal.

“You’ve two missed calls from your brother and one text,” Sherlock announces. Immediately, Sally’s heart leaps into her throat. “ ‘WTF answer yr phone’ Overbearing prat, obviously.”

“I don’t—” Sally moans, flabbergasted.

“Being a proper policewoman and knowing your phone is non-compatible with this car kit, yet another staggering example of the Met’s general inefficiency, you switched it to silent mode, trusting you would feel the vibrations if anyone tried to contact you. Your coat is new, these quilted coats are all the fashion this winter and this coat lacks the Starbucks Frappuccino stain you’ve been sporting on every coat you’ve worn since we first met, and you haven’t yet discovered the thick wadding absorbs…”

During this lecture Sherlock’s been hitting predial and Dave’s voice clangs through the car’s tiny cage, effectively shutting Sherlock up.

“Sal, why aren’t you answering your phone, goddammit?”

“Mr Donovan, your sister was busy soliciting my help. Why didn’t you listen to her and go home?” Sherlock counters the question, which, predictably, only makes matters worse.

“What, who is this? Sally!”

“Dave, it’s all right,” she yells as loud as she can.

“Sal, what...?”

“We’re on our way,” Sherlock barges in. “I advise you to do as your sister told you and give up and stop trampling all over the park. With your bootless skulking you’ve probably already erased half the clues that will lead me to your daughter.” Ahead of them the traffic is slowing down for the Piccadilly junction. Sally hesitates for just one second before throwing the switch for the siren.

“Jesus, Sal what…” Dave explodes. The rest of the sentence doesn’t reach them as Sherlock cuts Dave’s spluttering with one deft swipe of the screen.

“Supercilious twit,” he mutters under his breath.

“Sherlock is not a fan of elder siblings,” John explains in the background, adding reprovingly, “You could have been kinder. The man’s daughter has gone missing.”

“Screaming blue murder and trampling all over the park won’t produce her any faster,” Sherlock replies, still fiddling with Sally’s phone. “Best head for the park. Let’s hope your moronic brother has listened and cleared off. He can hold his wife’s hand and you’ll be of better use helping in the search than making them tea.”

Buried somewhere deep beneath the pile of abuse a compliment lies hidden. Sort of. Or so Sally surmises.

“This her?” Sherlock flashes a snapshot Sally took during their Eltham Palace outing of Susy gallivanting in the rock garden and laughing happily into the camera. If he’s noticed her jacket is an exact copy of the one he’s currently wearing he doesn’t comment on it. Oh, who’s she fooling? Of sodding obviously course, he’s noticed.

“Yes.” Sally swallows with some difficulty. Sherlock still keeps suspiciously silent and produces his own mobile. Keeping her attention fixed on the traffic she throws the occasional glance at what he’s doing. Apparently he has complete dexterity in both hands as his left thumb dances as nimbly over the screen of her phone as his right thumb dashes over his own mobile.

“An alert to my homeless network,” he explains. “Unlikely many of them are out and about, but there’s always the off-chance someone has spotted something unusual.”

“You think…?”

“Theorising before the facts is unproductive, Sally. This Laura, your niece’s best friend?”

“Oh yes,” Sally says. “Always have been thick as thieves. Why?”

“Most reliable source,” Sherlock explains, punching at her phone screen. She wants to scream, exhorting him to be gentle with a fifteen-year-old girl but before she can open her mouth the device is plucked from Sherlock’s hand. Apparently, John Watson sports an extendable left arm.

“I’ll handle the introductions, shall I?” he says, affably. “Cut that noise, would you?”

“Culverton speaking.” In the silence after the din of the siren the man’s voice booms in the small car with the loud insistency of an amplifier announcing World War III.

“Hello Mr Culverton, John Watson here, I’m with the police. I realise it’s late and long past Laura’s bedtime but we would like a word with her if you don’t mind.”

“Watson? That blog bloke?” Laura’s father says in a disbelieving tone. Sherlock groans and casts his gaze at the Panda’s ceiling as if imploring the thin sheets of plastic and steel to grant him the mental strength to deal with the idiocy of the world in general and everyone remotely acquainted with Sally in particular.

“Yes, now…”

“Oh, I see. Susy’s aunt. That’s clever. We put Laura to bed and confiscated her phone for the night but I’ll check whether she’s still awake.” In the background there are noises of doors opening and shutting and heavy footsteps falling on uncarpeted stairs. “Not that she has much to tell. Amy, that’s my wife, says Laura’s upset by Susy’s disappearance as much as by what feels like betrayal.” His tone indicates he doesn’t grasp the gist of those feelings, probably attributing them to the overheated workings of a teenage girl’s brain, but he has got the message those emotions can’t be simply disregarded battered into him pretty effectively by his wife.

In the passenger seat Sherlock battles his seatbelt for liberty and twists his far too long body in the far too narrow space of a Panda front passenger seat in order to look daggers at John.

Hurry up! he mouths furiously. John shrugs, eloquently conveying they’re in the hands of the gods.

“Laura, darling?”

“Yes Daddy.” The girl obviously hasn’t slept a wink.

“The police want to speak with you. It’s John Watson…”

“Oh lord,” the girl squeaks. Sally cringes in advance for an outburst of untimely fangirling with Laura swooning from sheer excitement or – worse – screaming her head off. Either she’s too distressed over Susy’s disappearance or Susy’s fad for the consulting detective is one of the few whims they don’t share but to Sally’s relief the girl’s continues relatively coherently, “Hello, Mr Watson.”

John grimaces but stoically accepts to a teenager he must be more ancient than Dippy the dinosaur itself. Everyone over twenty is, except for Sherlock, apparently.

“Hello Laura. I’m sorry to hear what’s happened and to disturb you at this time of night. Mr Holmes would like to ask you some questions. In private.”

“Of course.” Over the connection they can almost feel the girl nodding furiously. “Daddy, can you wait outside?” After ten seconds of furious arguing Laura speaks directly into the phone again. “It’s all right. My father is out in the hallway.”

John’s opening his mouth when the girl asks in a small voice, “Is Mr Holmes going to be rude to me?”

Sherlock graces the ceiling with another eyeroll.

“Probably,” John assents. “But it seems you’re better prepared than most. Here he is, brace yourself.”

With that encouragement he hands the phone to Sherlock who immediately barks into it, “What other mischief have you two been up to?”

Predictably the girl, already overwrought, bursts into tears. “Nothing,” she cries. “We’re not like that. Our dads would break our legs first. Everyone’s always assuming the worst because Susy is so popular but that’s because she’s fit and kind and not because… we’re not!”

“Come on,” Sherlock scoffs. “That crafty story the two of you concocted? What favour were you getting out of it in turn?”

“Nothing! I really was pissed off with her. She’s been acting weirdly for weeks now, even said no to going to H&M’s Tuesday to check out their new arrivals. Ever since…” Laura scrunches to a halt. Sally imagines she can see the girl clap a hand over her mouth.

“Ever since what,” Sherlock urges.

“Nothing,” Laura replies, sullenly but determined. “I can’t tell you.” Sally finds herself incredibly beholden to the cheap plastic steering wheel for existing and allowing her to clutch it so hard she fears for its continuing. In the mirror she catches sight of John shaking his head in sympathy with Laura’s plight and pursing his mouth in admiration of the girl’s steadfast celebration of a friendship she’s fearing may already be in tatters. He should be the one talking to Laura for what does Sherlock understand of the heartache induced by the loss of a friend.

“Laura.” To Sally’s amazement Sherlock’s voice has dropped to a velvety purr. It’s deep, and reassuring and unbelievably… sexy is the only term that covers whatever the sound is doing to Sally’s ears and the spongy stuff that’s lodged in between them and it presses her into pouring out her darkest secrets in the certain knowledge they’ll be safe with him.

Laura struggles audibly but if the aural seduction almost reduces Sally – who’s sitting right next to the prat and knows he’s a coldly calculating deducing machine – to a gibbering mess what chance does an innocent teenage girl stand?

“Please don’t,” Laura is crying. “Please.”

Normally this is the moment Sherlock moves in for the kill, Sally has seen him at it dozens of times, but he surprises her again by relenting.

“Just tell me,” he says, “what’s Susy’s favourite spot in the park? And her shoe size. Those aren’t secrets, are they?”

“Oh no.” Laura’s relief at the sudden change of tack is palpable. “The Peace Pagoda. Because of the views and it’s so funny, sitting there in the middle of London. And her shoe size is six and a half, same as mine.”

“I see. Thank you Laura. You’ve been very helpful. Tell your father we may want to contact you again later.”

“That’s… you will find her, won’t you?”

“I will,” Sherlock replies in that strangely warm tone and disconnects.

“Well, that wasn’t very helpful at all,” John opines. Not very helpfully in Sally’s opinion but a wise head keeps a still tongue so she doggedly keeps her eyes fixed on the taillights of the car in front of them.

“On the contrary, John,” Sherlock contradicts with his usual maddening confidence.

“Peace Pagoda,” he instructs Sally. “Best stop at about a hundred yards away from it. I want to look at the tyre tracks running up and away from the structure.” He turns in his seat and addresses them both.

“Susy met someone there. The very person with whom she’s been texting so assiduously the past few weeks. So much so her best friend was heartily sick of it. There’s something else, though, something that’s wrong with this picture.”

His voice trails off and he swivels his head to stare out of the window at the faintly phosphorescent orange glow of the streetlights bobbing past them.

“She specifically didn’t want to talk to me,” he muses.

“Word spreads around,” John points out, but Sherlock doesn’t take the bait. Instead he tinkers with Sally’s mobile again and stares at Susy’s picture with such eye-popping intensity Sally expects the device to dissolve from the heat any second. After what seems like an interminable time (though in actuality it’s less than five seconds) his face acquires a blank look, as if it’s a canvas scrubbed clean by an invisible hand.

“Good taste in clothes,” he says and closes his eyes, leaving Sally to grapple with the hot wave of shame and despair washing over her and leaving her face covered in a cold sweat. She shouldn’t have brought him in, he’s seen right through her, seen right through Susy. Even if he saves Susy’s life her poor niece will never recover from the mortification he’ll inflict.

***

Carriage Drive is deserted and the walkways leading to and from it are equally devoid of life. Even the occasional dog walker has decided to call it a day apparently. The moment Sally stops the car at approximately three hundred yards from the Pagoda, Sherlock throws open the passenger door and darts from the vehicle’s narrow confines as eagerly as a foxhound on the season’s first hunting day.

“Stay back,” he barks and he’s off.

What follows is a classical demonstration of ‘the Freak’ at work. It’s a post-modern ballet of the man doubling over to study an unremarkable heap of dirty snow through his magnifier and whisking out a zip bag to collect something undefinable from the half-frozen sludge covering the tarmac. The next instant he bursts into a run at Olympian speed only to draw to a halt ten metres on to drop to his knees and sniff – literally sniff – a clump of sodding grass while measuring it with the aid of a measuring tape. As ever Sally’s amazed at the amount of gear stashed inside the coat, that yet billows as gracefully around his legs as a sorcerer’s cape in a fairy tale.

John seems content to watch and admire the necromancer going through his jiggery-pokery routine. Sally uses the time for a quick call to inform Dave they’ve gone straight to the park.

“There’s nothing there,” Dave is grumbling when a triumphant yell reverberates across the grounds and from the shadows of a clump of trees emerges an arm that stabs the air with something slim and rectangular.

“What the…?”

“Sorry,” Sally breathes. “I think he’s found Susy’s phone. Later.”

Indeed the object proves to be Susy’s phone Sally learns when both she and John Watson arrive at Sherlock’s side. Somehow he’s already unlocked it. Sally notes Sherlock’s managed to put on a pair of nitrile gloves while dashing about. He wasn’t wearing them in the car. The sight startles her into understanding. He’s donned them because he’s collecting evidence.

“Track and trace not merely switched off but disabled. Quite permanently,” Sherlock announces. His forefinger brings up Susy’s contact list. “Now let’s see who’s been monopolising—”

Shocked, the three of them stare at the picture that has sprung up of Sherlock in that silly hat with his name beside it.

“What?” John growls, spinning towards Sally. All the anger he pushed down at Sherlock’s instigation less than an hour ago is back with a vengeance. “What sick joke are you playing at?”

“She’s not, John,” Sherlock pacifies his friend, simultaneously scrolling through the history of ‘his’ and Susy’s texting romance. Of bloody sodding course he’s far too fast for Sally but to catch a few words but even those are enough for Sally to feel tears of frustration well up for the umpteenth time that evening. Her own niece falling for such glib tricks despite all the warnings her parents have tried to hammer into her. Oh, the poor child, how is it possible for her to have been so thoroughly bloody stupid.

“You’re witnessing Sally’s worst nightmare,” Sherlock coolly admonishes John. “Susy’s been wearing her heart on her sleeve and someone’s picked up the signals. A rather cIever someone. See, I could have texted that.” He points out a barb about Lestrade. “Oh yes, clever, but young… and nervous.”

“How do you know?”

“They met here all right,” Sherlock says. “He had a car. See the tyre tracks, Dunlop winter sport 5. Not too sure about the type of car but could be a Volvo, which tallies with the tyres. So, sensible type. Not really, he was smoking with the window open – ash here and here – and threw out the dog ends. Three Silk Cuts, not a true nicotine lover’s brand, there’s simply no taste to them at all. Why smoke tasteless cigarettes with the window open in this temperature? Because the car’s actual owner doesn’t smoke and he wants to paint a picture for the person he’s waiting for. Not too clear a picture, that’s why he parked here, exactly between those streetlights. There’s enough light for Susy to catch the shape of the hat and the coat collar he’s flipped up to create a distinctive silhouette but not enough for her to realise he’s a fake until he jumped out of the car and overpowered her. Here’s the trail of her footprints, the most unpractical shoes anyone could wear in this weather and the right size, six and a half. A scuffle followed, she gave him as good as she got – drew some blood, see – but judging by the size of his shoes and the width of his gait he’s six feet one at least so she never stood a chance. He came prepared – cable ties – and dropped one in his haste binding her and bundling her in the car. He almost slipped driving off in the direction of Parkgate Road.”

John is staring open-mouthed at his friend and Sally realises her mouth must have fallen open at some time during the exposé as well for frigid air is tickling the back of her throat. A whole crime scene conjured up out of trivia anyone would have barged past obliviously. Like Dave probably did. Twice.

“But why didn’t he dump her phone in the Thames?” she manages. Which is what she would have done if she were abducting someone.

Sherlock shrugs. “How should I know? Because he’s a techie who hates to destroy the latest iPhone? You can ask him, when you’re interrogating him.” He stashes the mobile into another zip bag which he hands her while whipping out his own phone. “Hmm. Still nothing from the network. Damn.”

“Perhaps,” Sally suggests. “I can try to get access to the CCTV-footage. It’s a bit of a hassle—”

“We don’t have time to deal with the Met’s medieval procedures and regulations,” Sherlock grunts. Forging his features into a terrifyingly pretend smile he lifts the mobile to his ear and croons into it, “Hello brother dear, today happens to be your lucky day. You still owe me for saving that atrocious pile of bricks near Westminster Bridge from total destruction.”

The smile transforms into a sneer as he thunders, “Yes, Mycroft, I know that’s the Houses of Parliament but that’s not the point.—Oh, dull.—All I want is footage of cars driving along the Thames on the Battersea Park Carriage Driveway in the direction of Parkgate Road between eight and half past nine this evening.”

“But, that’s highly illegal,” Sally stammers, turning towards John for an explanation or perhaps reassurance that she’s not actually hearing what she thinks she’s hearing, but John just shrugs.

“I’m stumped,” he adds, unnecessarily, for his countenance expresses the whole gamut of his emotions as brightly as if he were back to shouting, straight into her face this time. The necessity of finding Susy as quickly as possible is a given for him, as it would be for anyone with the merest shred of humanity in their souls, but he appears seriously at sea about Sherlock’s motives for helping find Sally’s niece, even going so far as to apply for assistance to the despised brother.

The man in question, meanwhile, seems locked in a savage battle of wills that reduces the importance and memory of the Wars of the Roses to that of the longest hoity-toity tea party in the history of Britain.

At last Sherlock cuts the call with a face as disgusted as if he has just chanced upon a mountain of freshly deposited elephant shit. “Supercilious tosser.”

“Yeah,” John agrees. “Got what you wanted?”

“Yes, he’s sending it to your and Sally’s phone as well. Will arrive any minute. Might as well wait in the car.” He tears off the nitrile gloves and rubs his hands. “Nothing else we can do.”

Back inside their cosy government-issued shed on wheels Sally scrapes together all her courage before addressing Sherlock who’s staring at his phone screen as if willing the footage to pop up.

“Look. Susy’s young and… but she’s a good and clever girl, she really is. This is not like her—” She trails to a stop at the raise of his hand.

“My parents said the same first time my brother sent me down to Castle Craig,” he says, gaze still fixed to his phone with invisible wire. Correctly interpreting her silence following this declaration, he clarifies, “Pretentious rehab on the Scottish Border for morons with too much money and too little sense.”

“Sherlock,” John calls out, excited, and then the three of them are all staring at their phones.

“Where’s this exactly?” John asks.

“About two hundred yards from here, shortly before Carriage Drive branches. Look for a Volvo.”

“And a deerstalker behind the steering wheel,” Sally says.

“No, too distinctive. There’s a chance Susy’s allowed to sit straight but maybe he’s forcing her to bend over.”

A chilly hand squeezes Sally’s heart. “Or he put her in the boot.”

“No, she’s in the passenger seat.” The statement is delivered in his customary aggravatingly self-assured manner but for once Sally wants to kiss his face rather than slap it.

“Sherlock?” John Watson’s extendable arm wedges between the seats. “Nine eighteen. Two passengers. Not sure about the tyres but then I’m not a tyre man.”

“Dunlop,” Sherlock confirms, scrutinising the magnified pixels that look like an abstract painting with the eloquent title ‘No title’ to Sally. “Perhaps we’re in luck.”

At a speed not humanly possible he scrolls through the footage. “You too, Sally,” he rumbles and she guiltily resumes her onerous examination.

“Octavia Street,” Sherlock exclaims the next second. “Went in, never came out.”

“What? Dave lives in Ursula Street, that’s the next street from…”

“So there’s a chance Susy knows her assailant. You get us there, Sally, no flashlight, we want to sneak up on them. I’ll tell you if we’re chasing chimeras instead of your niece.”

She may be denied the use of the siren and the flashlight but as the roads are deserted anyway there’s no keeping her from assembling the largest amount of speeding penalty points in the shortest possible time. At one point she feels John’s fingers brush her neck as he grapples the back of her seat for support but Sherlock remains unperturbed, his long body swaying seamlessly along with the bloodcurdling swerves around corners and the occasional vehicle bold enough to assume it has right of passage where they’re headed.

“Best slow down now,” he says as they veer into Octavia Street.

“Jesus,” John comments in a kitten’s weak mewling tones. “That was worse than a rollercoaster.” Apparently he’s so shaken he’s even dropped his wide range of soldierly vernacular.

“Nonsense. Park over there, Sally. That’s our Volvo, in front of number twenty-five.”

The grey Volvo is sitting menacingly in front of an inconspicuous semi-detached. The house’s woodwork twinkles as spotlessly bright in the ambient orangey glow of the streetlights as that of its neighbours and an immaculately shorn box hedge separates the front gardens from the pavement. The windows in both houses are dark, their inhabitants either asleep or away. In fact, the whole street appears to have hooked it for Bedfordshire.

“Are you sure?” Sally whispers.

“They’re unlikely to hear us, Sally,” Sherlock responds, already unfolding his frame from the confines of the Panda. “And of course I’m sure. Wait here. I’ll get the lie of the land.”

He’s off like a hare hound, dashing around the Volvo. For a moment he appears confused but then he clearly picks up the trail and darts away at a speed that makes Sally wonder whether he’s trying to collect penalty points on foot.

“Oh no you don’t,” John breathes and then they’re both out of the car and chasing Sherlock and catching him with his lock picks thrust deep inside the lock of a meticulously painted front door.

“Ssh,” he shushes them and flicks his eyes up to the upstairs window over the living room and the thin line of light at the top of the glass.

The lock’s tumblers fall into place and John shoves Sherlock aside and is the first into the house, Sherlock tiptoeing after him as stealthily quiet as a fox sneaking into a chicken coop. As Sally creeps after them her heart is hammering so loudly in her chest she fears the noise will give them away. Imagine Sherlock is wrong and she’s adding breaking and entering into some perfectly upright British citizen’s home to her tally of offences against the law.

But he’s never wrong, remember? she chides herself and then her hearts jumps straight into her throat for a sound resonates through the dark gloom that reigns in the hallway. It’s a snivelling wail of fear and despair, and Sally’s up the stairs and racing towards the noise but John astonishes her again by speeding past her and blocking her way at the top.

‘No,’ he mouths, ‘you don’t know what’s in there.’

Talking about overbearing gits. Sally pushes at him but he’s like a rock and she has to watch helplessly as Sherlock slithers past them with the ease of an eel in a bucket of mucus and halts at the door from behind which the whimpering continues. For an instant he seems irresolute but then he kicks the door in and leaps into the room with a mighty shout of “Police, you’re under arrest!”

Still wrestling John whose hands are gripping her upper arms like a pair of vices Sally gasps as she catches sight of the horrifying scene Sherlock has revealed. Sherlock – the saint Sally thinks wildly as a fresh flood of tears threatens the dam of her professionalism again – has already taken off his coat and is draping it over Susy’s shoulders, whether in order to preserve her modesty or to provide her with a source of warmth Sally is unable to determine. Perhaps both.

She doesn’t know if John releases her voluntarily or if she manages to wriggle free of his grasp at last. What she does know is that she’s in the room with Susy the next second, nearly stumbling over the long legs prone on the floor in her haste to gather the girl in her arms.

“Sally,” Susy cries out and buries her face in Sally’s shoulder, sobbing and pushing her blood-soaked curls into Sally’s face. There’s blood everywhere. The whole room is covered with the fine spray that burst forth from the left carotid artery of the man – no, Sally decides as she looks at the motionless face, he can’t be older than twenty if it’s a day, so he’s really nothing more than a boy – contemplating the ceiling with broken eyes.

Sherlock is crouching beside the body, lifting the weapon – a pair of what even Sally can discern are obviously expensive and ridiculously sharp scissors – with fingers that are once again covered in nitrile and depositing it into another zip bag.

“You ring Susy’s parents, John,” he says. “There’s nothing else for you to do here and they’ll be relieved to hear their daughter is safe and well.” He holds out his hand for John’s phone and dials the number. John retreats to the corridor, shutting the door behind him. “Best call 999 as well.”

“Sherlock,” Susy gasps, lifting her head and staring at him as if woken from a trance. “He… oh god… I didn’t do it on purpose, honestly.” She thrusts her face into Sally’s neck again.

“Please, Sally. I… I panicked when he started unbuttoning my blouse and I only wanted to get away so I agreed to kiss him but I said for the kiss to be a real kiss he needed to untie me so I could cup the back of his head like they do in the films and he… he believed me and he used the scissors… You see, in the park he’d bound my hands with cable ties and we fought…”

“Ssh, Susy, it’s all right. You don’t have to explain,” Sherlock says. “I’m Sherlock Holmes, remember? This room has already provided me with all the evidence I need. Just tell me, what did people call him?”

“Geek. Even Laura did, we argued about it because Richard can’t help it he’s cleverer than any of us. I… I felt sorry for him so I always said hello when we met in the street.” Another sob wracks Susy’s thin body. “And now I’ve killed him.”

“It was self-defence,” Sally says hotly. Over the top of Susy’s head Sherlock lifts a finger to his lips as if imploring her to shut up. Can’t he see the girl needs to be reassured she’s done nothing wrong? Sally throws him the most livid glare in her repertoire and clutches Susy even tighter, murmuring soothing sweet words into her hair.

Meanwhile Sherlock is defying general expectation by ignoring the corpse in the room and bending over the victim/attacker’s desk, lifting a tiny disc close to his face and peering over it with the same intensity he employed scrambling for signs near the Peace Pagoda. The hunch of his shoulders indicates he sincerely misses his magnifier, which must be hidden somewhere in the coat’s copious pockets.

“Fascinating,” Sally can hear him mutter. For the first time since entering Sally casts a look around the room – this ‘Richard’s’ room – she supposes and notices its layout is something of a blend of the Met’s forensic labs, Molly Hooper’s lab at Bart’s and Sherlock’s kitchen table.

No wonder he told Susy the room provided him with all the evidence he needed. It must have reminded him of his own lonely youth, spent suffering the company of dimwits whose sole response to his brilliance was foul-mouthing him with every unimaginative derogatory label in their limited verbal range. Freak or geek. Same difference.

“I never meant to kill him,” Susy wails, and Sally presses her closer and hides her face deep in the girl’s curls in shame.

***

Dave and Debbie are the first to arrive, followed shortly after by the ambulance and a sleepy-eyed Dimmock who springs to attention the instant he spots Sherlock. The DI has been among the consulting detective’s staunchest supporters ever since the Chinese smuggling ring case. Sherlock talks Dimmock through the evening and the crime scene, ending his exposé with the expectation the inquest will prove Susy is the inadvertent victim of her own compassion. This, Sally realises, is uttered more for Dave’s and Debbie’s sake than for Dimmock’s instruction.

He also hands Dimmock a post it-note with a phone number, warning the parents are holidaying in the South of Italy and the first available flight to London is tomorrow at nine a.m.
Where and how he’s uncovered the number is a puzzle Sally will tackle later, once she can think clearly again.

These chores dealt with Sherlock addresses Sally. “My mobile. Left hand inner pocket.”

“Oh,” she says. “Oh, of course. I’ll ask for a shock blanket.”

“No need,” he replies. “Your niece has suffered enough shocks for one evening as it is. Those blankets were designed by a colour blind visually impaired moron having an off-day.”

“But it’s freezing… and…”

“You surpass yourself Sally but there’s no need. John has ordered a cab and I have two more at home.”

So he does stock a whole range of the extravagant item. Sally speculates briefly if the same holds true for the infamous PSoS and what price it would fetch on e-bay should she pilfer one during the next pretend drugs bust.

“All right,” she says. “Thank you.”

***

Predictably, the inquest proves to be a mere formality. Sherlock dumfounds Sally yet again by keeping his testimony brief and to the point, but she’s relieved to discover she isn’t the only one gobsmacked. Once John has regained his speech he introduces Sally to his fiancée, Mary Morstan, a small pretty blonde whom Sally immediately takes a liking too.

“I’m very happy for you, John,” she says. “You’ve found yourself a lovely woman. And a lot safer than Sherlock.”

“God yes, I’m the luckiest bastard alive.” John grins. “How’s Susy holding up?”

“Better than Dave and Debbie, I think. She fought with them over visiting the boy’s parents and now insists on going to the boy’s funeral. I agree with her. It can be a kind of… I don’t know… closure for all of them. The boy’s parents are devastated, of course. Susy says they even apologised to her.”

“It’s a sad story,” Mary butts in. “And your niece is a staggeringly gutsy girl.”

“Yes,” Sally agrees. “Yes she is.”

***

At last Dave and Debbie succumb to reason and assent to attending Richard’s funeral, provided Sally accompanies them.

Halfway through the service the door to the church opens. Sally swivels in her seat. She thinks she spots a swishy black shadow vanishing behind one of the thick pillars supporting the nave. As they file out of the church behind the casket she checks every pew and stone in the building but she must have imagined it for the last ten rows of seats prove entirely devoid of life.

***

Lestrade returns from his sojourn to the Scilly Islands looking satiated and faintly smug and as excited as a teenager in love.

“You’re a moron and a disgrace to the Met’s standards which were already ridiculously low to begin with,” Sherlock informs him archly and legs it out of Lestrade’s office with his nose up in the air and dramatically flaring coattails.

Which reminds Sally its counterpart still resides at her brother’s.

“Thank god you rang,” Debbie says. “I’ve already told Susy a hundred times we should take the horrid thing to the drycleaners and return it. I can’t stand the bloody sight of it any longer.”

“Uh, I’d better ring his landlady and ask her if there’s a specific drycleaners he favours. He’s a bit particular about his clothes.”

“As am I, Sal, our dry—”

Exasperated, Sally hangs up on her.

Maybe Sally is indeed learning Sherlock Holmes’ quirks and tells. Mrs Hudson immediately starts tutting and assuring Sally there’s indeed only one dry-cleaning establishment in the whole of the Greater London area entrusted with the privilege of sanitising Sherlock Holmes’ clothes. If Mrs Hudson is to be believed no other business is fit to dealing with the Herculean task of scrubbing copious quantities of blood, Thames mud and other indescribable muck from textiles designed for languishing on an over-stylised garden bench at some posh charity event rather than durability.

Debbie confesses to being unfamiliar with the firm. Unsurprisingly, Sally muses as she tracks and backtracks the warren of mews and back alleys that feels like she’s entered the TARDIS and been dropped off somewhere in the Regency era, cursing Google maps for malfunctioning when she needs it most. Throughout the monstrously voluminous plastic bag into which they’ve managed to bundle the coat keeps bumping her leg.

At long last she grasps she’s already passed the firm a dozen times, assuming the crumbling establishment with the imposing display of cobwebs in the windows must have been out of business since way before The Beatles released their first hit single.

The antediluvian duffer guarding the counter eyeballs her suspiciously while opening the bag. His look acquires daggers as he reveals the content. “How did you come by this?”

It’s just Sally’s luck to have bumped into yet another Sherlock Holmes lover. One who looks ready to do her in and, frankly, Sally’s certain this man has so many hiding places at his disposal even the great consulting detective would never detect her withered corpse.

“Mrs Hudson,” she squeaks, which luckily works like a charm on the creature and buys her a few precious minutes in which to explain how the sacred coat (‘Belstaff’ the ogre corrects her) came into her possession.

“Oh dear. Blood all over the lining. When will he ever learn?” the man grouses in the indulgent tones of an elderly parent who’s just learned of his beloved child’s latest shenanigans and Sally flees the premises before a fondness for all things Sherlock Holmes will overcome her and rob her of every last shred of common sense.

***

“It’s amazing,” Susy enthuses, fingering the fabric hidden beneath the mileages of plastic swathe covering Sally’s lap. “Feel how soft it is. I’ll tell Mum we’ll have to change drycleaners. And imagine he even has his shirts dry-cleaned.” Enthralled she stares at the PSoS resting in her own lap. When collecting the coat the shop’s proprietor had told them they might as well take those shirts and save Mrs Hudson the bother, which Sally concurred was an entirely reasonable course of action. Anything to get out of the quaint creature’s proximity as quickly as humanly possible.

Inwardly, Sally sighs. Her own assessment of Sherlock Holmes’ assets as a human being have pivoted a hundred and eighty degrees since Susy’s frightful ordeal but she’s secretly hoped the same would have held true for Susy’s adoration of the man. After all, he’d mainly ignored her the evening of her rescue, didn’t even look her way during the inquest and hasn’t enquired once how she’s faring since. If Sally were in her footsteps…

…she’d never have ended up in the trouble to begin with for she would have joined the others in jeering at that unfortunate boy, Sally admits gingerly and isn’t that a sobering thought.

“I once found eyeballs in his microwave,” she now warns. “And my boss says he once nearly stepped upon a collection of venomous spiders in his loo. Nearly pissed himself.”

Susy smiles. “I know what you’re doing, Sally. But you really don’t have to. I can still admire him for being a snappy dresser and for rescuing me, can’t I?”

“You did it all by yourself,” Sally says, grabbing Susy’s hand and pressing it.

“I kept hoping you’d contact Sherlock for he was my best chance of figuring out what had happened,” Susy says. “Until Richard made that move when I tried to stab him and… I lost it...”

“Would you mind not listening in on a private conversation,” Sally snarls at the cabbie’s perked ears before leaning forward and closing the glass partition door with a bang.

Mrs Hudson welcomes them as if Susy is the Duchess of Cambridge herself arriving at her doorstep.

“Oh, John told me all about you, you brave, brave girl,” she trills. “But come in, come in. Mrs Turner will be glad for the distraction. She has been complaining all day about his playing. I don’t hear it any longer, you know, just turn up the telly but she insists a hedge between keeps friendship green. I wouldn’t know about that, I’ve never been much of a gardener myself.”

In the hallway Susy heads straight for the staircase.

“Oh, and thank you for getting the dry-cleaning,” Mrs Hudson continues, undeterred. “Especially that coat. It’s so heavy, isn’t it?”

“Indeed,” Sally says, remembering to ask, “How’s the hip, Mrs Hudson?”

“Oh, much better dear, thanks to your advice. I went to the shops the next day and it hasn’t been bothering me at all since. It looks a fright and if Frank had caught me wearing those he would’ve murdered me but well, thanks to Sherlock he can’t.”

“I’m relieved to hear it,” Sally says and hurries up the stairs after Susy and towards the racket of a dozen cats in heat being strangled.

Thankfully it stops the moment Sally raps on the door to the living room.

“Come in,” Sherlock’s deep voice booms through the wood.

“Ah Sally,” he greets them, looking down from the lofty heights of his uppity nose and over the violin stuck under his chin. “And Susy. On a call of delivery. Good. You can put it there, on the sofa and leave. Bartok’s sonata for solo violin has no patience for trivia.”

“I’m sorry to hear it,” Sally retorts. “But too bad all the same. Your neighbours will thank me for cutting that godawful noise at least.”

Sherlock lowers the bow and the violin to fix her with his haughtiest stare but she ignores him and marches into the kitchen. “I’ll make us tea, shall I, seeing as Your Lordship can’t be bothered to lower himself to the basic principles of hospitality.”

“I didn’t invite you, did I?” he shouts after her. “And unless you’re here for a case...”

“We’re here to thank you for taking on my case, Sherlock,” Susy’s voice cuts in and Sally smiles to herself as she fills the kettle, insanely proud of the girl’s guts. “And to thank you for finding me and rescuing me and not commenting on my stupidity even though you had every reason to do so.”

She’s looking steadily up at him while proffering her hand. Lower lip pushed forward he contemplates the limb for a long time before slowly placing the violin and bow into their case.

“You’re welcome,” he says, folding his long fingers around Susy’s small hand in a firm grip. “It was barely a three but you were a better victim than most.”

“Not dead,” Susy states and that draws a faint smirk.

“Still a fangirl though,” he notes, his gaze sweeping Suzy’s black suit and burgundy shirt. “Your aunt’s bound to be disappointed.”

“That’s because there’s no one else in Britain who’s got your sartorial style,” Susy replies and for some unfathomable reason that answer appears to put a feather in Sherlock’s cap.

“Well.” He gestures towards John’s chair. “Not everyone would agree but in this you’re the expert, I suppose.”

“Please.” Susy holds out a neatly-wrapped package to him. “I’m really grateful and I wanted to give you a present.”

“Why, thank you.” His face drops at the tediousness of complying with the dull manoeuvres of ordinary people but it lifts again as he lifts the scarf from the paper. Even Sally has enough awareness to appreciate its exquisite quality. Woven in a faint tartan pattern it looks incredibly soft and warm and the amongst the various blue hues one colour stands out that matches the blue shards in his eyes to perfection.

“I made it myself,” Susy says. “I hope you like it.”

***

A few weeks later Sally runs into Sherlock at the Yard’s sole functioning coffee machine. Slung around the consulting detective’s neck is Susy’s scarf. He catches her surveying it and shrugs.

“It’s warm,” he says.

“ ‘Course,” Sally smiles. “You fancy the double espresso or the latte macchiato? I’m still trying to detect the difference.”

“There isn’t any,” Sherlock answers decisively. “Shoddy coffee for a shoddy organisation. I held some hope after Anderson’s dismissal but you’ve managed to replace him with an even bigger idiot.”

“And a happy New Year to you too,” Sally cheers him, raising her – shoddy – plastic cup to him. “By the way, I still meant to ask. If it was barely a three, why did you come with me that night?”

“Why?” For a moment he looks trounced by so much sheer stupidity and then he smirks. “You know the answer, Sally, you’ve been shouting it at the top of your lungs since we first met. I’m a psychopath, remember, and psychopaths get bored. John was just about to suggest we watch telly.”

He shudders.

“Oh.” Whatever answer she expected it certainly isn’t this ruthlessly honest admission Susy’s calamity served as a temporary cure for perpetual boredom. On the other hand, this same ruthlessness was what carried them through the evening and is now helping Susy deal with the aftermath.

No more the Freak, only Sherlock, that’s what she’s promised him. Promised herself.

“Right,” she says. “Well, I know saying thanks is wasted on you but thank you all the same. For everything.”