“I… I…” John spluttered helplessly. It was obvious sheer rage had him tongue-tied. His pathetically small hands clenched and unclenched at his sides; the doctor and the soldier warring over the decision whether to drive a balled fist into their flatmate’s face, which – with said flatmate languishing in his chair – for once was conveniently within reach.
Exasperated and by now thoroughly angry himself, Sherlock resolved John’s conundrum by leaping to his feet.
“Please,” he declared in his loftiest tone. “Since my presence bothers you so much, I’ll relieve you of it.” Before John could protest Sherlock had shoved him aside –deliberately barging into him – donned his coat and bundled his scarf around his neck and thundered down the seventeen steps.
Downstairs the door to Mrs Hudson’s living room opened a crack. “Sher—”
Still fed up with her, Sherlock snarled.
Dodgy hip notwithstanding, she’d veritably dashed into the kitchen just as he was peeling himself from the fridge door, into which the force of the explosion had catapulted him. Her face had crumpled in concern but once he’d assured her he was fine she’d quickly changed her tune and started whinging about the damage to her flat and the furniture and threatening she’d really put it on the rent this time. With increasing volume she’d begged to remind him that she’d always been more than willing to put up with his shenanigans, but there were limits, even to her patience.
Now, to remind her he could take only so much, Sherlock slammed the front door shut with a violent thud that reverberated through the building’s façade and send the slats of 221B’s sash windows rattling most satisfactorily within their frames.
There. But the thought lacked its customary zing of mental superiority.
Thrusting his hands deep into the Belstaff’s pockets, Sherlock began to walk, his feet steering him automatically towards Park Road. London bustled by around him, oblivious to the rotten day he’d just spent and which had ended with the first major quarrel with – though he’d never so much as admitted to the sentiment, least of all to the man in question – his best friend.
He’d just hit Park Road when he became aware of the black car trailing at his side. It had, Sherlock only now realised, been idling at the kerb as he stormed out of the house and set off after him like a faithful dog as he stomped down Baker Street. Obviously his irritating brother – alerted by either a hidden camera or a distraught Mrs Hudson – had decided to stick his meddlesome nose where it most definitely wasn’t wanted.
“Go away,” Sherlock growled, flipping a hand in the sedan’s direction, which evoked curious glances from a few passers-by. The vehicle, not unexpectedly, remained in place, glued at a distance of precisely ten yards from Sherlock’s position on the pavement. There was nothing for it then but to head straight for the park and the nearest pedestrian entrance. Sherlock picked up speed, the car trundling along seamlessly. In this fashion, they covered another two hundred yards before Sherlock determined he’d had enough.
In three strides he was at the at the car’s back door, yanking it open to holler a rancorous ‘sod off’ at whomever was in the back seat, not caring whether it was one of Mycroft’s minor minions, his flippant PA, or the bloody nuisance himself. His mouth was already half-open when an arm shot out of the car’s interior and pulled him inside. Taken aback by the swiftness and force of the action, he landed in an inelegant sprawl on the plush carpet lining the floor.
“What the…” he started, even as his ears discerned the loud click of the doors locking simultaneously. There was a sharp sting in his neck. Then everything went black.
John sank down in his chair and pressed the heels of his palms to his eyes, exhaling deeply several times. With each breath a small part of his anger dissipated and in five minutes he was ready to face the world again; the sad remains of what had once been a perfectly nice bachelor flat in particular.
Perhaps, he admitted now the red veil of fury had lifted, the damage looked worse than it actually was and the place was salvageable. His chair for instance must have stood directly in the line of fire of whatever it was Sherlock had detonated in their kitchen and yet, like Sherlock’s chair, it was scrupulously clean of the sticky residue coating the floor, John’s little side table and reading lamp, the mantelpiece and bookcases and the display cabinet behind Sherlock’s chair. Even the kitchen, at first glance covered from top to bottom in a smelly puree the colour and consistency of mud, might not be beyond redemption, for a circle around the kettle had been cleared, the kettle itself was clean and a neat footpath led from the door to the kettle and hence to John’s chair.
So, John acknowledged grudgingly, Sherlock had gone out of his way to erase the impact on John’s daily life of whatever the hell he’d been up to earlier. In fact, when John entered their living room Sherlock’s look had been definitely contrite, and he’d been scrubbing the skull with dogged earnest. Penitence quickly morphed into daggers, however, when John enquired what the fuck had happened to his flat.
“Your flat, John?” he drawled, letting go of the cleaning rag and drooping into his chair as if John’s mere presence was tiring beyond endurance. After the day John had endured Sherlock’s petulant genius act was too much. He’d gone spare right then and started yelling at Sherlock, calling him by every name in the Fifth Northumberland Fusiliers’ book and a good few that were even worse.
Normally their tiffs ended by John doing a bunk and drowning his irritation in a few pints at his local or a brisk morale-enhancing constitutional around the park. (He’d long since learned seeking solace in the arms of his girlfriend of the month was the quickest route to the end of the budding affair and so he’d ceased making that mistake.) So what did Sherlock’s unexpected voluntary retreat signify?
John sighed. Nothing much, probably, he mused, but relief the dogsbody had returned to clean the rest of the flat.
But no. He pushed himself up and wandered down the path between his chair and the kettle to prepare himself a cuppa. In thinking thus he was selling his friend short. Over the eight months they’d been flatsharing Sherlock’s conduct had definitely changed for the better. He even occasionally made tea for the two of them instead of merely demanding John make his and expecting a complimentary plate of hobnobs besides. The disaster’s absolute profusion must have overwhelmed Sherlock long before John arrived upon the scene. Already seriously shaken, John’s explosive reaction probably was the last drop and he’d gone for the last resort left and scarpered.
John shook his head as he lifted the tea bag from his mug. He would have reacted differently, he told himself, it would have been okay – or not really but this was Sherlock he was dealing with after all – on any other day.
But this morning John had woken to the great-, great-, great-, great-grandmother of all hangovers battering the inside of his skull with a sledgehammer, the result of his previous night out with Mike Stamford. Sherlock might know the best restaurants for a quick and tasty meal, but Mike knew the best venues for indulging in out-of-this-world bitter and a gripping game of darts. Sadly, John had been so far out of the world by the time he got home he’d forgot all about rule number one after a Stamford outing. Once he’d dragged his curiously heavy frame up staircases that appeared to have mysteriously multiplied their number of steps, he’d face-planted into his pillow rather than drinking the prescribed half a litre of water to dilute the alcohol.
At the surgery John’s first patient was a distressed eight-year-old who promptly threw up over his shirt when he examined her. Apparently a freak strain of stomach flu was careering through London’s primary schools faster than the speed of light. Thus, John’s day consisted of trying and failing to dodge sprays of vomit and scraping off the chunky bits and patting wetted paper towels against his shirtfront between calling in the next heaving child.
By midday the mothers of the hapless youngsters were throwing him funny looks and twitching their noses. Thankfully, John had long since ceased to smell anything. Still, he’d decided to walk home after finishing his shift, rather than withstanding affronted glances in the Tube. He was quite certain none of the cabs would take him and reasoned he could do with a swish of fresh air himself.
The last thing John had expected – and needed – to find was his flat reeking like an olfactory exhibit on The Great Stink at the Museum of London. Which was, John realised while downing his tea, why he was still standing here in his fouled shirt and stained trousers. Normally he would have headed straight for the shower the moment he came home.
Which might still be a good idea, John thought as he finished the last of his tea. Freshen up first and decide how to handle the Sherlock situation after. Perhaps by the time John had finished his friend would have slunk home anyway. Unlike John he didn’t have army mates with a lilo to spare, nor was he the type to nurse his grievances over a pint of ale in some obscure watering hole.
The shower felt like heaven descended to earth. For once the hot water didn’t run out long before John finished. He contemplated using Sherlock’s ridiculously expensive shampoo (neither Tesco nor Asda stocked the brand so John had actually googled the stuff and goggled at the retail price) and body wash in a juvenile act of revenge but decided at least one of them should try and pretend they were grown-ups.
An hour later John strode into the kitchen, bodily and mentally refreshed and ready for the task of cleaning the flat. He fully expected to find Sherlock scrubbing his microscope. The thing appeared to have miraculously survived what John now labelled ‘the shit storm’, perhaps because it had been right in the blast’s eye.
To his surprise the living space didn’t contain six feet of consulting detective. Hands on his hips, John considered Sherlock’s bedroom door before tapping his knuckles against the wood. Receiving no reply, he pushed at the door. Sherlock’s bedroom presented itself in its usual pristine state: curtains open wide and the top window opened for fresh air, the bed neatly made, shelves dusted and not a knickknack out of place.
Still in a strop then. It would be no use phoning the man; the git simply wouldn’t deign to answer as soon as he saw it was John trying to contact him. That left John with two alternatives. Either abscond to his local, a prospect that, given the state he’d woken up in that morning, held unsurprisingly little appeal, or set about turning the flat into a habitable space again.
The pail of soapy water Sherlock had left next to the mantelpiece was cold and the water itself an unattractive beige with dubious wodges bobbing at the surface. John took a deep breath, emptied the contents in the sink, dove under it for the bottle of Flash and a cleaning rag and began scouring away at the cupboards.
Someone was groaning loudly, which was decidedly irritating as Sherlock was marching through the fields of clover surrounding his mind palace, on his way to inspect the beehives near the garden wall.
“Stop it,” he muttered and then he was wide awake for he realised the person doing the groaning was himself.
Or perhaps he was dreaming he’d woken, for he was covered in a darkness as deep and black as the inside of a vat of tar. He blinked once, and then again with great deliberation, but his surroundings retained their pitch-black hue. Never before had he encountered such inky blackness. Not even as he sat on his knees staring out into the moonless nights at his Surrey childhood home, dreading the arrival of the dawn and another day locked in the schoolroom amongst his cretinous classmates.
“Whaaat?” His vowels slurred and his tongue lolled from one side of his mouth to the other like a dipsomaniac lurching his way along a garbage-strewn back-alley reeking of piss. Which was, Sherlock considered as his nose quivered in revulsion, perhaps a surprisingly apt metaphor.
Surely he wasn’t... The all-pervasive inky blackness didn’t lift and his ears filled with a rushing noise, like water carried along a narrow canal. His olfactory nerves were busily diagnosing and adjusting to the stench, which increased at the same steady rate as his general awareness.
The sodden state of his socks provided him with another clue and the précis of his situation slotted into coherence when he tried to move. Hands tied behind his back, ankles bound to the legs of the chair he was sitting on, the general dampness and that suffocating stink… Clearly he had been dumped and left to expire somewhere in the miles and miles of London’s sewers. It seemed the car door he’d opened hadn’t been attached to a vehicle belonging to Mycroft’s fleet.
Although he had compared Mycroft unfavourably to a sticky toffee pudding the last time his sibling visited Baker Street. The tiny twitch of the left-hand corner of Mycroft’s lips had informed Sherlock that barb had stung as sharply as he’d intended and his brother had stampeded out of the room, brolly poised at an ominous angle.
“One of these days that mouth of yours is going to run away with you, brother mine.”
Sherlock had wiggled his eyebrows at Mycroft’s disappearing back, John had sniggered and they’d ordered Chinese. But the idea of the British government staging an abduction for the mere sake of teaching his baby brother a lesson was preposterous and Sherlock dismissed the notion. Most likely he’d been seized by one of London’s criminal elements, and taking the setup into account, they appeared to be rather well organised.
He wriggled his fingers experimentally. His arms were drawn behind the back of the chair, slotted through slats, and his wrists tied with what felt suspiciously like a length of cable tie. Sherlock detested cable tie. If properly applied, and this particular strip circled his wrists far too snugly, loosening it was virtually impossible. Thankfully the blood flow to his hands wasn’t cut off. With some squirming he managed to brush his fingers along one of the slats. It felt like badly sanded and varnished wood, oak judging by the grooves, which was a pity as oak was a sturdy wood, quite resistant to attempts to smash it to pieces.
Sherlock had published an interesting thesis on the splintering of various woods on his website. As well as an equally fascinating treatise on different types of ropes and knots and the best techniques for securing someone. Obviously, his captors had followed those instructions to the letter; thereby disproving John’s theory nobody took notice of Sherlock’s website. A victory, perhaps, but one Sherlock felt he could have done without. Trust his readership to turn the tables on the author.
For all their idiocy he was the one sitting here in a sewer with his feet tied to a chair and getting decidedly cold. The constant flow of chilly water drained them of body heat, and his enforced immobility didn’t help. He tried moving them and had to settle for a restricted twist. His toes still worked, which was something.
The atmosphere’s overall temperature veered towards coldish, especially as there was a distinct draft and his kidnappers – whoever they were – had robbed him of his coat and scarf. Goners, both of them, probably. Unceremoniously dumped in some skip in the back of beyond. Part of his mind bewailed the loss of the beloved items and he rigorously closed the door in its face, trying to concentrate on the faint current brushing his cheeks instead. That ought to help determine in what part of the system he was currently located. The next second both the coat and scarf banged the door wide open and launched a full-blown panic attack.
Stop it, he instructed and repeated the words out loud for emphasis. Hollow and empty, a faint echo ricocheted off the walls. An involuntary shudder slithered down his spine. Cold, he was just cold, he told himself.
Worse was the stifling blackness. At least it suggested he hadn’t blithely walked into a trap set by Moriarty. The consulting criminal had once confessed he liked to watch Sherlock dance, an activity rendered impossible by his present state. Also, he’d have instructed his henchmen to install a camera and a 1,000-watt lightbulb for a full-frontal close-up of every look of discomfort flitting over Sherlock’s face to be broadcasted on Jim’s personal TV channel. Sherlock could easily imagine the despicable miscreant enjoying the show on one of those ridiculously large screens, swigging a glass of overpriced champagne in a penthouse as vulgarly over the top as those Westwood suits he favoured.
Anger at Moriarty, always justified, wouldn’t deliver Sherlock from his predicament and he resolutely shut down that line of thought. Still, the yearning for a gleam of light remained. His Maglite was lost, stowed as it had been in one of the Belstaff’s pockets, but perhaps he could activate his phone’s torch function. His hands, tied as they were and hampered in their range by the angle of his arms through the slats, were able to more or less roam along his back, aided by some careful shifting and lifting of his shoulders.
Sherlock closed his eyes (a ludicrous action given the circumstances) to better concentrate on locating his mobile. Where the heck had he put the thing as he fled the flat? If he’d stashed it inside his jacket any effort at retrieving it was futile but just as often he stowed it in one of his trouser pockets. His senses were off due to the constant assault on his sight, smell and hearing, but he should be able to feel the phone’s rigid corners pressing against his thigh or behind.
He discerned every thread of combed cotton brushing his skin, beneath the rougher weave of his twill wool trousers. Two single pennies sat uselessly in the right-hand corner of his left back pocket but otherwise each pocket was empty.
The realisation dawned slowly on him, together with a picture of his phone’s actual location, which suddenly shone bright as day before his eyes. It was back at Baker Street, lying on the kitchen table, languishing beneath a thick layer of exploded human liver.
An hour into tackling the mess, John was no closer to figuring the precise makeup of the brownish sludge. The stench wafting into his nostrils was one of decay, with a worrying hint of dead meat. He’d just cleaned his new Bond DVD, mourning the evening he’d planned for himself where he would sit watching the film instead of wiping the jacket. The alternative, just bin the damned thing and let Sherlock fork out for a new one, had made a brief appearance, and been discarded.
By now John’s anger had dissipated and he was beginning to worry. Unless Sherlock had lighted upon a crime scene in progress he would long since have returned. Sherlock may have perfected sulking on a sofa for no apparent reason into an art form and an endurance test for anyone unlucky enough to be in the vicinity of said sofa, but in general he cooled off quickly enough after the occasional flare-up. John was the one who excelled at bearing a grudge. Not that he was particularly proud of the trait.
In an attempt at stifling his unease John mounted a full-scale attack on the mantelpiece. Three minutes in he recognised the endeavour’s utter futility. Once the idea of Sherlock in trouble and needing John’s help had settled there was no way of dislodging the notion except through an outright denial by the man himself. Swearing under his breath, John dropped the rag into the pail, stripped off the Marigolds and fished his mobile out of his jeans.
Sherlock was one of those people above personalising his ringtones. In the kitchen his mobile chimed the second John raised his thumb from the screen, switching to voicemail at the first ring. Loud and clear, Sherlock’s voice rang through the flat. ‘This is Sherlock Holmes’ voicemail. You have thirty seconds to state your case. Don’t. Be. Boring.’
As briskly efficient as the man himself. This time, John swore at full volume. After all, there were no ears but his to hear the obscenities (the left ears stashed in a Tupperware box in the fridge were long past hearing anything) and he had invaded Afghanistan.
“Yoo-hoo.” Mrs Hudson rapped her knuckles against the doorjamb and took a tentative step into the living room. “Oh dear,” she said, eyes sweeping the room and assessing the wreckage in one glance.
“I’m sorry, Mrs Hudson. My apologies,” John offered, a hot blush of mortification itching under his skin. Mrs Hudson shook her head.
“Don’t, John,” she chided, raising a finger for emphasis. “Believe me, I’ve had worse flung straight into my face by my husband’s so-called business companions. No, I was hoping Sherlock would have returned by now to help you…” She trailed off and trudged up to the sliding doors for a closer look.
“Oh dear,” she repeated, and then, “I may have overdone the shouting a bit but I was absolutely furious. First that dreadful noise, and just as I was sitting down for a spot of tea and Doctors. I almost broke my cup and it’s my second-best one, from my Nan, you know. Somehow I was sure that silly boy had done himself in and then when I came upstairs and saw all this mess…” Here Mrs Hudson shuddered and if John hadn’t known her for the world’s most guileless landlady he would have sworn she had picked up some of her youngest tenant’s flair for dramatics. “…And him acting like it were nothing out of the ordinary, I just blew a fuse.”
“Please, I understand,” John assured her quickly. “Your response didn’t differ from mine or anyone else’s, I suppose. It is… rather distressing, to say the least.”
“Indeed. And the pong. It’s worse than the sewers. What on earth has he been up to?”
“Haven’t the faintest,” John admitted. “But more importantly, where has he gone off to? He left over two hours ago and I just found he left his phone in the kitchen. You know that thing is all but surgically attached to his hand so I’m starting to worry.”
“Oh, dear.” Their landlady’s expression indicated she’d grasped the perturbing implications of John’s discovery. “Know what, love?” Her face brightened. “I’m sure he went over to Bart’s to harry that nice girl. What’s her name, Molly something?”
“Molly Hooper,” John replied automatically. “Actually, that’s a good suggestion.” He swiped his thumb over his contact list. Mrs Hudson widened her eyes and blinked meaningfully at him.
“Molly Hooper,” Molly answered at the third ring, sounding a bit breathless. As Sherlock’s presence generally had a destabilising effect on Molly’s respiratory system John concluded Mrs Hudson’s intuition had been just right. His relief dwindled as fast as it had arrived before Molly’s blazing enthusiasm at the chance of some nonsensical prattle rather than filling mind-numbingly dull spreadsheets for the NHS’ red tape circular-filing system. With Sherlock around those spreadsheets wouldn’t be on display but slumbering somewhere deep inside the recesses of her computer.
“Is he making you ask for another liver now?” she rambled on suspiciously.
This question provided John with plenty of answers he didn’t think he wanted. The substance still coating his Doctor Who DVD collection acquired an even more repellent aspect while Molly continued, “I told him I won’t do it and I meant it. Not if he doesn’t come up with a better method to cook the books. Debby Mortimer threw me a funny look yesterday morning. She can’t prove anything, I’m careful, but I’m not risking my position, not even for him.”
Her voice had grown slightly hysterical during the last sentence. John’s stomach clenched in its familiar reflex of pity and exasperation. Molly was clever, could be fun, and was easily the best pathologist at Bart’s, which explained why Sherlock had laid the charm on her like some otherworldly gorgeous prince straight out of a gothic horror story. Why couldn’t the poor besotted woman grasp her infatuation was wasted on a man whose mind was too trained at dissecting mysteries into tiny unimaginative elements to succumb to the nebulous, unscientific intricacies of romance?
Any other time John would have disentangled himself with as much tact as he could muster, but right now he was too worried about Sherlock’s whereabouts to concern himself with social niceties. He rang off with a brief apology, hoping against hope the conversation wouldn’t leave Molly upset and in a state of heightened anxiety.
A purple-clad arm shoved a mug of tea under his nose. “Thanks,” he mumbled and took a fortifying swig. Of course it was laced with just the right amount of milk.
Mrs Hudson was cradling her own mug close to her bosom. “Oh dear, that didn’t go too well,” she commiserated. “Poor girl.”
“Yes, well. You know Sherlock.”
“Oh, yes love. But she seems like a sensible girl and the way he treated her at Christmas. Now, in my time—”
“I’d better try Greg.”
John’s brusque interruption didn’t faze Mrs Hudson at all. “You do that, John,” she said and planted her behind in John’s chair in eager expectation of developments.
John checked his watch. At this hour, unless he was acting in his general role as crime scene arbiter for team Sherlock against the Anderson Donovan team, the DI was most likely in the midst of his perpetual war with the IN tray skulking on the right-hand corner of his desk. The man kept ruthless working hours. Small wonder his marriage was a shambles.
“New Scotland Yard, Lestrade speaking.” Greg picked up at the second chime in a tired voice, against a vague whisper of shuffling papers. Not with Sherlock at a crime scene then, nor locked in a battle of wills over NSY territory and the contents of the evidence room. All too ready to listen to John vent his worry and the few lingering tendrils of anger.
“God, sounds like a mess,” he grunted, once John petered to a halt. “And he just flounced off, did he? Typical.” The tiniest trace of a smidge of admiration trickled down the line. Longing almost.
“Well.” It was easy to imagine Greg stroking his jaw as he contemplated the scene laid out before him. “Normally I’d say His Nibs can perfectly well fend for himself and we both know he can sulk for Britain if he has a mind to but he’s unlikely to do so at one of his boltholes and you say he’s been gone over two hours now?”
“Boltholes?” John enquired disbelievingly. During their acquaintance Sherlock had broken John’s preconceived notions of life in twenty-first century London time and again but boltholes sounded suspiciously like the ploy a third-rate spy novel author would fall back on to sustain a cock-and-bull plot.
“Yeah, he has several, nothing comfy, mind. Not like that sofa of yours. Now lemme…oh, bugger.” The rush of an avalanche filled John’s ear. He sucked in a breath in sympathy as he imagined Greg’s office, never the tidiest of spots, submerged beneath a drift of disrupted files.
“Great,” Greg sighed. “That’s a night’s work down the drain. But I’ve got what I was looking for, a list of every person who might bear Sherlock a grudge released from jail this month.”
“It’s been known to happen in the past. Some people don’t take kindly to Her Majesty’s hospitality, and that’s putting it mildly. The Met protects its officers of course, but I keep an eye out for Sherlock myself. But I don’t think… no—”
The DI had obviously flicked through papers while speaking and seemed to have reached the end of his list. “I could check the last half year or so but I don’t remember a name jumping off the page. And it will take some time. I’m still arms deep in the Camden cannibal paperwork but he was a loner so…”
“The Camden cannibal,” John asked, aghast, recalling the diminutive baker, innocuously covered in flour from head to toe, whose pie stuffing definitely hadn’t met the Food Standards Agency minimum requirements regarding health and safety.
“You’re not the only one with a knack for snazzy blog titles,” Greg sniggered, only to turn serious again. “How about you come over and check the CCTV footage. I know Sherlock’s hacked into the system and he could watch it at home but I don’t suppose you…”
“No,” John replied. “Sorry, haven’t the foggiest. I tried ‘dadadada’ once, reckoning it suited the snotty genius act and the thing actually snorted at me in that way he has. How that’s even possible I don’t want to know. And I do have my own laptop.”
“Of course. Well, you could also try his brother. From what I reckon he’s the one controlling the cameras. Way faster than trundling all the way to the Yard. Besides…” Greg stopped meaningfully and the silence alerted John to the thrumming of rain against 221B’s windows. A swift glance revealed it was cats and dogs outside. The prospect of venturing into such weather held as much appeal as scrubbing particles of exploded liver from kitchen cupboards, especially without the aid of the imperious, cab-summoning arm at his side.
If John brought in Mycroft, Sherlock was likely to cut him for a week. But at least he would be doing so from the confines of their sofa, where John could keep an eye on him. You’re an idiot, John told himself in Sherlock’s voice, he managed perfectly fine without you before you met.
“He’ll never let you forget it,” Greg forewarned sombrely.
“I hope so,” John answered.
Okay. Think. Here he was, cable tied to a chair several feet below street level. Whoever had put him here had an extensive knowledge of the sewer system, for the absence of light leaking through grates or manholes proved he wasn’t stuck in any old conduit running straight below the surface. Either that or it was night. The street lamps’ ambient glow would be hardly strong enough to penetrate the system. Logic provided a third explanation for the pervading blackness but he staunchly refused to stray down that road of reasoning… yet.
Besides, not any of it mattered. Not now. What was important was that no matter how vigorously he wriggled and squirmed the cable around his wrists didn’t budge so much as a hundredthh of an inch, and by now his toes were on the point of succumbing to hypothermia. Better accept he’d never manage to free his hands and start finding a different approach to extracting himself from this smelly prison.
Planting his left foot as firmly on the floor as the plastic tied just above his ankle and the slippery tile allowed him, he tried to hitch his right leg up along that of the chair. With the aid of his calf as a measuring instrument Sherlock had already determined the chair leg itself ran straight so – provided he managed to move his leg at all – he wasn’t in danger of running his ankle aground at an impossible height which would add greatly to his general discomfort.
Honing all his senses in on a small slice of his body he pulled with all his might in an attempt to see how much leeway the cable tie afforded him. His plan was to slid the ties down over the bottom of the chair legs. After taking his other leg through the same procedure Sherlock pondered his next move. Standing on one foot while pulling his leg free seemed highly inadvisable. With both legs tied he had very little room for manoeuvring and the floor was slick with a film of unsavoury debris and lichens that thrived in the foetid darkness; every flushed toilet literally depositing food at their doorstep. If he fell…
Sherlock considered attempting to hop to the side. A lot of London’s sewage tunnels had a catwalk running along their sides for the convenience of the sanitation workers. The catwalks also narrowed the channel and increased the flow of the water and sewage. Some of these catwalks towered quite high above the smelly river below them and Sherlock’s career as an escape artist would greatly benefit from their presence in his immediate environs. Which, given his current predicament and the conclusion he’d long since reached that his opponent may be a reprehensible sadist but was also quite clever, was almost definitely – he estimated the chances against at 99.23% – not the case.
Oh, for God’s sake, what was he dawdling for? He’d braved more unpleasant prospects without batting an eyelid. The squid trawler cocaine smuggling case, for instance, which had required jumping straight into a cargo hold filled to the brim with freshly gutted squid.
Pulling as much of the squalid air into his lungs as he could, Sherlock pressed his mouth shut, tipped his chin close to his chest, pushed off with his feet to launch the chair’s front legs into the air, and toppled over backwards.
Mycroft answered his phone so quickly John wondered whether he’d been expecting the call all along.
Strangely, he retained a statesmanlike quiet after John had explained his motive for initiating contact. John raised an eyebrow, which got him one of Mrs Hudson’s in return, and was about to disconnect and redial when he thought he heard the soft snick of a door closing, followed by the loud slap of leather soles on wooden flooring.
“John,” came Mycroft’s voice next, all smooth and warm. “You caught me in the Diogenes’ reading room. What time did my brother leave the house?”
John told him.
“Hmm. I’ll have someone look into it. You’ll hear from me. Goodbye.”
“Wait,” John shouted, unprepared for such an offhand dismissal, even from Mycroft, compared to whom the Lord Protector himself must have been the embodiment of frivolous discourtesy. “How long will it take you?”
“Five minutes maximum,” Mycroft said and ended the call.
“Great.” John threw his mobile a disgruntled glare, wishing the device would magically convey his massive displeasure to the uppity git who still chose to believe John’s sole function in life was keeping his baby brother from stirring up trouble.
“Oh dear,” Mrs Hudson commented pointedly.
“It’s fine,” John hastened to assure her. “I just resent the hell out of him.”
“Yes, I can see why you would,” Mrs Hudson replied mildly. “But he truly loves our Sherlock as much as we do.”
“I don’t—” John began before dismissing the rest of the sentence as futile. The notion of her tenants conducting a passionate affair straight above her head simply held too much appeal for Mrs Hudson. Despite her marriage’s gruesome ending she remained a true-blue romantic at heart, quite apart from the ongoing contest with Mrs Turner. Her pair might be married but Mrs Hudson’s pair was more obviously devoted to each other. And in a way, John conceded, he and Sherlock were closer than many a married couple he’d encountered in life.
“Perhaps the Detective Inspector is right and someone has a grudge against Sherlock,” Mrs Hudson proposed. “Someone they forgot to lock up. You know how Sherlock is always complaining…”
Her trail of reasoning was interrupted by the shrill noise of John’s mobile. It was Mycroft. John checked his watch. Two minutes had passed since Mycroft rang off. His minions must be particularly keen to please him today.
“John,” Mycroft breezed in straightaway. “Sherlock entered a vehicle on Park Road eight minutes after he left 221B. We traced the vehicle to a car park at Bowling Green Lane. So far it hasn’t emerged again. My people are checking the garage as we speak.”
“Ah, excuse me, there’s an update. – Yes, as I feared the empty vehicle has just been discovered and it seems some of the car park’s cameras were tampered with. Another aspect we’ll examine. Sadly, my people’s investigation will be hampered by the considerable lapse in time allowed to pass since Sherlock’s disappearance.”
There was no need for Mycroft to add ‘by you’ for John to hear it loud and clear. Valiantly staunching his irritation he suggested, “Shall I come over to Bowling Green Lane then?”
“Good heavens, no,” came Mycroft’s instant dismissal. ‘How would that profit our search? Besides, I’m sending someone over to clean up the mess my irksome younger brother imposed upon you and the excellent Mrs Hudson. I’d rather you rummage through the notes for that amusing blog of yours for any clue, however tiny and seemingly insignificant, that will help us uncover who’s responsible for Sherlock’s abduction and where they’ve taken him.”
“I’ll have the footage sent to you and will leave you to your own conclusions,” Mycroft answered in the weary tones of a man whose low expectations of the average human being’s intelligence had taken yet another plunge. “Do call if you think I’ve interpreted the material incorrectly.”
Of bloody sodding course Mycroft’s reading of the images was spot-on. John and Mrs Hudson watched helplessly as their friend, under the mistaken assumption he was dealing with his meddlesome elder sibling, confronted the sleek black vehicle one moment and disappeared inside it the next.
“Oh dear, the silly boy. What do we do now?” Mrs Hudson asked, hands fluttering up and down in apprehension.
“Now we follow Mycroft’s suggestion,” John replied grimly, unearthing his notebooks from the uncoordinated heap tottering on a corner of their desk. Thanks to the saint guarding the average blogger’s grinding toil through the ages, the pile was located just outside human liver bomb spray range.
“What exactly am I looking for?” Mrs Hudson was already beating a retreat to the comparative cleanliness of the sofa.
“Anything that…” The doorbell rudely interrupted John’s explanation. They shared a look – the mix of hope and apprehension on Mrs Hudson’s face a faithful depiction of the mingled sentiments churning in John’s chest – and then John was setting a new record for tackling seventeen steps and yanking a front door open in one go.
The presence waiting on their doorstep made John blink and check whether his left hand was indeed wrapped around 221B’s doorknob and not around the TARDIS’ door handle. The sight of Hilda Ogden staring up at him from beneath her trademark curlers, half-hidden beneath a headscarf whose hideousness outshone the faint glow of Baker Street’s street lamps easily, teletransported John straight back to his parents’ living room, and the black and white telly on which the woman had presided like a working class Queen.
“Hello luv,” the spectre greeted him in a tone that suggested a mutual acquaintance. Jesus fucking Christ on a bicycle, she even sported a pinny. “Mr Holmes sent me for an emergency cleaning job.”
“Mr Holmes?” John repeated, incredulous. Every single employee of Mycroft’s John had encountered since he and Sherlock started flatsharing filed through his mind’s eye, each of them decrying the frankly outrageous notion this…menial labourer would be one of their number. A loud rattle behind the woman drew John’s attention and he gawped at the pair of men, suited with the sartorial elegance that marked them as Mycroftian minions to even his unobservant eye, struggling to lift what looked like a professional cleaning trolley from the boot of a sleek black car. The curlers on top of ‘Hilda’s’ head bobbed as she threw him a withering look that would have done her alleged employer proud and convinced John she was actually speaking the truth.
“Upstairs, innit?” The woman swept John aside in genuine Holmesian fashion, effectively reducing him to a speck of dust imprudently loitering in the path of her broom and thereby strengthening her declaration.
“Dr Watson,” the men greeted him respectfully as they followed in her wake with the trolley, lugging it up the steps between them.
John shut the door and scaled the stairs in the men’s wake, already dreading the scene his eyes would meet once he entered the flat.
To his surprise and relief Mrs Hudson and ‘Hilda’ appeared to have clicked immediately.
“...Got a soft spot for his brother,” Mrs Hudson was saying. “Now dear, they stock their cleaning supplies in the cupboard to the left of the sink but I don’t know…”
“Never mind, luv. I always bring my own. The scenes I’ve clapped eyes on. Not that I can spill the score. Mr Holmes made me sign a paper.” A snort conveyed the woman’s opinion on the Official Secrets Act. “I could do with a cuppa, though.”
“Of course. Oh, John—” Mrs Hudson redirected the conversation smoothly. “I think I found something. A case you haven’t written up yet. In your notes it says Sherlock had words with the Detective Inspector.”
“They often do,” John said.
“Yes dear, who wouldn’t? But this was special. Sherlock insisted the police had arrested the wrong people, small fry, while letting the brains walk free.”
“Oh, that case. God yes, I remember. That stench—”
“Well dear,” Mrs Hudson said in an impatient tone, clearly wondering why he was still loitering at the premises. Sherlock, naturally, would have been out the door like a shot. Unfortunately, for all the months they’d spent together Sherlock’s genius still hadn’t rubbed off on John.
“You might have a point,” he stalled for time. “Problem is, I don’t have a map. We didn’t really need one, Sherlock had the whole system stashed somewhere in that Mind Palace of his.”
“Oh, really?” This information seemed to daunt Mrs Hudson for a second, but then her face brightened. “Of course. Even in a palace there’s bound to be a loo. Are the taps gold, you think?”
“No, it’s all brass,” ‘Hilda’ butted in.
Thrown off balance by yet another outstanding example of their landlady’s singular line of reasoning, John buried his nose inside his notebook, pretending to read up on what he’d jotted down during the case rather than trying to sustain a serious conversation. This case had been one of their first, unfolding just two weeks after Sherlock had arrived just in time to save Sarah from a thoroughly nasty and unromantic ending by a pointed arrow aimed straight at her heart.
Sadly, it had also been one of those cases where Sherlock’s mental associations and deductions had followed each other with great leaps. They had flown from his mouth as inevitably as wisdom from a mythical fountain of knowledge. To the ears of mere mortals like John Hamish Watson the blurb outdid the Delphic oracle for obscurity. John had counted on Sherlock pointing out the details he had missed – which in this case amounted to about ninety-five percent of everything that had happened to them over the last few days. By then he’d learned there were few things Sherlock relished more than taking someone by the hand and guiding them along the trail his mind had shown him. Until Mike introduced them Sherlock simply never had met anyone willing to undertake the effort, even Lestrade, who certainly reaped the rewards.
But that case had ended badly, with Sherlock maintaining the Met hadn’t arrested the biggest culprit and the Yarders triumphant with closing down the largest heroin-smuggling enterprise ever run in the UK, and their catch of a large number of thoroughly hardened thugs with outrageously silly aliases. When John attempted to comfort Sherlock with the observation that thanks to his efforts a lot of extremely wicked individuals would grow old in the nick Sherlock’s lower lip curled in disdain and he locked himself in his room. Three days later he emerged, dressed to the nines and absolutely refusing to discuss either the case or his response to its outcome.
“They’re idiots, even Lestrade,” was his only comment and at John’s request for further clarification on what exactly they’d been doing before Sherlock’s temporary seclusion he took his violin and began sawing at it so savagely John actually checked on the landing whether Mycroft had popped up unannounced.
John turned the page and felt his eyes widen. Apparently acting as a pawn in a master criminal’s sick game, being snared in a dominatrix’s recreational activities and battling monstrous hounds influenced his mental capacities adversely rather than stimulating them, for he’d completely forgotten jotting down these maps. The brownish coffee smudge refreshed John’s memory. Half-frozen, they’d struck up a temporary camp at Lestrade’s office for revitalisation purposes. Accompanied by derisive sniffs from the corner where Sherlock perched like a gigantic crow with eyes glued to his phone, Lestrade had produced a map of London’s bowels and tacked it next to the city map adorning his cubicle in order to retrace the gang’s movements across London aboveground and underneath. For the criminals’ thorough knowledge of the pathways hidden beneath London’s surface had been the vital key to their success, allowing them to materialise out of nowhere and literally vanish from the face of the earth.
They’d trafficked their harmful wares along one of the Thames’ minor tributaries, long since enclosed and transformed into one of London’s sewer system’s major components. Convinced he was onto something, John fumbled with his mobile for Google maps.
“Have you found something, dear?” Mrs Hudson enquired but her voice sounded far-off. Which wasn’t at all surprising, as it had to travel aeons of sudden understanding.
“You’re a marvel, Mrs H,” John breathed, jumping to his feet.
Mrs Hudson tittered and presented one of Mycroft’s lackey’s with a mug of tea. “Do you want a biscuit with it? Mycroft always declines.”
“No time for that,” John decreed, snatching the mug from the startled man’s fingers. “We’ve got a consulting detective to rake up.”
Dear God, he prayed, please, let him be alive. Please Sherlock, don’t be dead.
Fully benumbed as they were from an enforced submersion in dubious, barely tepid liquid, Sherlock’s feet never prepared him for the shock of the chilly, swift river that threatened to close over his head. Panic almost had him open his mouth, whether for a scream of agony or a plea for help that wouldn’t arrive, he hardly knew. Not that it mattered. Its only outcome would be swallowing a huge gulp of wastewater.
Something undefined and insalubrious bumped into his right cheekbone in a gentle reminder he was supposed to wriggle his feet free from the chair legs. Suppressing the urge to gag he jiggled his right leg until he encountered the merest hint of leeway his captors had unwittingly granted. Now all he had to do was lift his leg and move it – smoothly, gently, nice and easy does it – forward along the chair leg, guiding the cable tie as patiently as a mother accompanying a toddler to the playground.
At long last he felt first the heel of his shoe and then his whole leg slip free.
Profound relief skittered wildly through his head, momentarily suppressing the warning signals his lungs transmitted that his supplies of oxygen were running dangerously low.
Focus, Sherlock, he instructed himself in what for a hysterical instant he mistook for Mycroft’s reproving tones. Irritation with his infernal sibling – if only it were his fat arse squiggling in the foul mire currently attempting to swirl up Sherlock’s nose – gave his left leg the final shove it needed.
Both legs free, Sherlock grounded his shoe soles against the slippery bottom as firmly as the thin leather permitted and, fighting the chair, managed to push his body into a standing position. Heaving glorious life-sustaining breaths of unsavoury air deep into his lungs he tottered on his legs like a new-born foal but managed not to lose his hard-fought balance.
Filthy, dishevelled and shivering, his present position was nevertheless infinitely better than the last one – or the one before that. Briefly, Sherlock considered trying his hand (or rather, his whole body) at demolishing the chair by ramming it into a wall but decided such impulse was stupid and definitely below him.
The only sensible approach to his quandary was slugging a course along the pipeline until he encountered a shaft of light falling down a grate. There all he had to do was shout his lungs hoarse for someone to hear him and have the sense to ring the emergency services, who would then proceed to extricate him from his ignominious position.
Sherlock gritted his teeth. All too eagerly his mind conjured an unwelcome, noxious jumble of images: John’s dismayed honest and open face, Mrs Hudson tutting reprovingly and offering a mug of tea with a rock cake, Mycroft’s cold reproachful glare, Lestrade shaking his head in disbelief, Donovan sniggering maliciously. Bellowing in frustration Sherlock propelled his feet backwards, gaining speed for exactly one quarter of a second before the chair legs smashed into – something, a wall presumably – which launched him neatly across the width of the tunnel. He nearly tripped over his toes and smacked his forehead hard against what he assumed was the other wall. A sharp encrustation that was nonetheless slippery and damp and profoundly unpleasant grazed his skin. Blood seeped into his brows and trickled into his eyes. If he hadn’t already been surrounded by an inky blackness the blood would have blinded him.
So much for the senseless approach.
Gnashing his teeth again Sherlock shook his head, righted himself and started on the long slog through the darkness.
One thing Mycroft Holmes definitely had going for him was a seemingly infinite store of eminently cooperative assistants, John pondered as one of the patented sleek black cars hurtled him along London’s streets in hushed luxury.
Agents Peters and Peterson had perked up considerably at John’s order to drop him off at the Bowling Green Lane garage. They were men attuned to danger and clearly sensed John was a surer means of providing them with excitement than passing their evening watching Mycroft’s personal char scrubbing at 221B’s surfaces, no matter the amount of weird and frankly alarming trappings she thus brought to light.
“Just one more minute, Dr Watson,” Peters – or was it Peterson? – spoke up from the front passenger seat. “Mr Holmes’ PA just texted. The auxiliary forces have arrived.”
“Good,” John said. Any pangs of conscience regarding his engagement of Mycroft’s people had long since succumbed to anguish over his friend’s fate. Contrary to the association with some inane teen pop band their name inspired, the Bunsen Boys had consisted of a vicious lot of criminals who held the lives of others all too cheap. What they would do to the man responsible for the lion’s share of the gang mouldering in prison – and John pitied the other inmates – he didn’t dare to imagine. In Afghanistan he’d run into too many examples of the atrocities man was capable of.
Sheets of plastic partitioned off a corner of the car park’s lowest level. In front of the plastic wall ‘Anthea’ awaited them, highlighted like a beacon, fingers dancing gracefully over her mobile. John hitched an eyebrow, which she duly ignored.
“Hello John,” she greeted him, her attention fully focused on the screen lighting her face. “Long time no see.”
Eyes still fixed on her BlackBerry, she lifted one of the plastic curtains and stepped inside, motioning with her head for John and agents Peters and Person to follow her.
“Nice seeing you too,” John answered in the most sarcastic tone in his repertoire. He might as well have commented to the fairies flitting about in Regent’s Park or the man in the moon. ‘Anthea’ didn’t bat so much as a single eyelash. To be fair, she probably dealt with worse on a minute-by-minute basis.
Perhaps John’s training at Sherlock’s hands had been lacking in essential aspects. After months of flatsharing with an eccentric genius, John considered himself pretty much inured to the general madness that sprang from interacting with the Holmes brothers. Still, he batted not one but several eyelashes at the sight that greeted his eyes. At ‘Anthea’s’ daintily shod feet rested a pile of gear adequate for outfitting a spelunking expedition to the South Pole. Lined up against the far wall, a squad of Mycroft’s minions stood at attention. Each of the men’s smart trouser legs ended in a – admittedly seriously stylish – wellie and a screamingly yellow builder’s helmet hid their pricey haircuts. Fluorescent Hi-Vis jerkins completed the outfit.
“What is this?” John asked, completely flabbergasted.
“Mr Holmes deemed it advisable you lead his younger sibling’s extraction,” “Anthea’ informed him over the top of her mobile. “He’s unexpectedly up to his nose in a smelly affair concerning the Norwegian prime minister or he would be here to oversee the operation in person.”
Pulling on his wellies (of bloody course they fit like a glove) John thanked the Norwegian prime minister for being such a convenient pain in Mycroft Holmes’ arse. He quickly followed the impulse with a flare of sympathy for the unlucky man or woman – his grasp of Norwegian politics was a close match to Sherlock’s familiarity with British cabinet ministers – bold or stupid enough to cross the path of the British government.
“Isn’t this setup a bit over the top?” he commented, donning his orange jacket and already dreading Sherlock’s massive scowl of indignation.
“Nothing is excessive in Mr Holmes’ opinion when it comes to his baby brother,” ‘Anthea’ replied, carefully screening her own thoughts on the subject behind her BlackBerry.
“That’s exactly the point, isn’t it?”
The remark’s bitterness had ‘Anthea’ raise her gaze from her mobile for the first time since John had entered the garage. Her eyes travelled up and down his form, dissecting the various parts with the cold assessment of a butcher estimating a loin of pork hanging from a hook before dismissing him altogether and returning to the infinitely more interesting content of her BlackBerry. With her right hand she produced a gun, seemingly out of nowhere, and proffered it to John.
“He trusts you brought your gun. If not, please accept this one with Mr Holmes’ compliments.”
“Nah, I’ve got it,” John replied, swearing under his breath. Of bloody sodding course Mycroft knew about the gun. Did the man really wonder why Sherlock might resent the hell out of his elder brother or did he consider himself above such puerile concerns?
“Here, Dr Watson.” Agent Peterson – or was it Peters? – thrust an unwieldy box at John. “Cave radio,” he explained. “In the tunnels our mobiles won’t work. May I suggest we work in teams? Peterson and I would be honoured to assist you personally, sir.”
“Oh yes, of course.” John fiddled with the knobs and handed the box back to Peters. “You’re head of communications.” Peters looked exceedingly pleased with this easily accomplished promotion. “We do have maps, I suppose?”
“Yes, Dr Watson.” Peterson had accepted a yellow manila folder from ‘Anthea’ and was handing out booklets of plastic-laminated A4 sheets that contained a map of the whole London sewage system.
“Good.” John nodded his approval, spun on his heel and appraised the line of patiently waiting special agents for whom he was now directly responsible.
“Gentlemen. Thank you for helping me look for my friend, Sherlock Holmes,” he began. “Unlike him, I’m not a genius so there’s a high chance we’re chasing the wrong lead and won’t find anything down there. But if I’m right I want you to remember we’re dealing with the remnants or a newly resurrected organisation of dangerous criminals who’ve stopped at nothing in the past. We’ll work in teams and you’ll radio Peters here immediately if you don’t trust the situation. No violence unless absolutely necessary to save yourself or Sherlock. Any questions?” His gaze travelled over the men, who all shook their head. “Right, let’s roll.”
During his speech ‘Anthea’ had opened a door on the left. Murky, dank vapours wafted through the opening and mingled with the garage’s equally unappetising odours of gasoline and exhaust fumes. Moisture beaded on the door’s steel coating, John saw, as he marched past it onto a tiny platform suspended over the tunnel, from the end of which a ladder ran to the bottom.
“Good luck,” ‘Anthea’ bade him farewell but John didn’t heed her. He was too focussed on not slipping from the ladder’s rungs, which were bedecked with some kind of moist algae Sherlock would no doubt have declared ‘fascinating’. John merely considered it a nuisance. Once his feet hit bottom he felt infinitely better. He breathed in relief and coughed into his hand straight after. The air was foul, even worse than he remembered from his last visit.
“Dr Watson,” Peters said and John retreated to make room for the other men descending the ladder as quickly and stealthily as a herd of mountain goats traversing an Alpine summit. The last man shut the door and darkness as deep and impenetrable as a tomb closed over them. John felt for the lamp on top of his helmet.
“Two men into every side tunnel, starting with those at the end of our line. Radio your findings and go back to the main tunnel if there’s a branching or a dead end. And remember, safety first.”
He started plodding down the stream swirling around his wellies. The beam of his head torch skipped ahead of him like a fairy, guiding them along. John huffed at the ridiculous notion. The movement swung the beam along the ceiling and lit the encrustations hanging there, making their crystals glitter like a myriad Milky Ways rolled into one. It was oddly beautiful in its own way.
They passed the first side tunnel. John checked the map. So many tunnels deviating in every direction, the enterprise felt as hopeless and futile as combing through every back alley and mews in Greater London. And Sherlock might not even be down here.
As if to punish such negative musings that second, the floor gave way beneath John’s right foot. Peters’ fingers circled his arm just in time to spare John a humiliating – and definitely malodorous – encounter with the slop eddying around their legs and the distasteful shapes bobbing on its surface.
Sherlock reasoned it must be night. It had to be, it was the most cheering explanation for the continuing darkness. Unless he was struggling in a loop – round and round the sewer like a bedraggled teddy bear. Some parts of the system ran deep below the surface and lacked a direct link to the streets above. But it didn’t feel like he’d taken any turns.
He groaned in annoyance. What he would have liked was to shout his vexation but silence served his chances of survival better than noise. Until he chanced upon that elusive, liberating grate, that was. Then he’d create the biggest racket since the Fleet River was first covered.
But by now the complete blackness was starting to work on Sherlock’s nerves. Early on – what felt like hours ago, but with his hands tied behind his back he couldn’t check the tritium-painted hands on his watch for confirmation of the assessment – he’d tried dragging the chair along the wall on his right, like a modified white cane. That way he’d discern any turn-offs, and perhaps, by matching the info thus gathered to the map in his head, determine which part of the system he was navigating.
Reality soon clashed with theoretical ingenuity. Holding the chair aloft at an angle with his hands tied behind his back quickly proved a challenge. Doing so while stumbling through perpetual darkness, testing the slick tiles beneath his soles before planting one foot and raising the other for the next step quickly rendered it impossible. The second time Sherlock nearly face-planted in the muck he gave up and released the slats. The chair now trailed after him, as uncooperative as a pampered dog averse to braving the piss-poor weather for his outing and hauled along by a seething master.
Seething being an adequate summation of that contingent of emotions currently not freaking out over the continuing absence of the tiniest glitter of light. The horrible notion he’d squashed earlier sprung up again and wouldn’t budge, no matter how hard he tried to delete the ridiculous suggestion. What if his abductors had blinded him and then left him here to stumble in this foul-smelling limbo until he expired? Sherlock huffed in annoyance. Frightening, actually, how quickly disorientation reduced one to a shivering, gibbering mess without a single coherent thought in one’s head.
Not gibbering though, dear Lord, please no, not gibbering.
Concentration off-line, Sherlock lost his footing. He teetered on one unstable leg for an instant, felt it buckle, and attempted rooting himself to the floor by digging in his other foot, which landed on something squishy that gave way inevitably and send him toppling forwards. Bone-crunching agony shot through his kneecaps at their collision with the sewer bed. Slimy liquid crept up his thighs. His bare fingers brushed something undefinable, which his sense memory identified as a wet pelt . The body beneath was cold and dead.
And then he was gibbering.
John checked his watch. Four a.m. So far they’d searched about ten square miles of pipe. Not even one hundredth of the whole system, John realised, resolutely squashing the trepidation the realisation invoked, like a huge rolling wave of bile surging up inside his chest.
Mycroft’s men were working beautifully, like clever, fully automated machinery drilled to function independently of human overseers. Peters was constantly passing forth information to Peterson, who kept score of the different teams’ progress on his map.
Around them the system’s arteries unrolled, like pathways in a poisoned labyrinth through which John travelled; a computer game warrior, his sword drawn to slay the lurking dragon and never recognising the real danger lay hidden in those neat rows of hedges. The rotten air he drew into his nostrils and which clung clammily to the bare skin of his face and hands, combined with the shimmering walls and the steadily swirling ooze they were wading through, didn’t help with getting a grip on himself.
“Dr Watson, sir,” Peters spoke up behind him that moment.
Saved by the bell of banality John pivoted straightaway, lowering his head so his light wouldn’t blind the man. “Yes, Peters.”
“It’s agent Davids, sir. His mate heard splashing in a tunnel branching off from theirs.”
Hope surged in John’s chest, immediately replaced by responsibility for the lives of Mycroft’s men. Chances were they’d located Sherlock but there was an equal likelihood Davids and Co were about to meet the Bunsen Boys, with possible disastrous consequences.
“Tell them to halt immediately, take cover if possible and cut their light,” John instructed. “They can resume their search if everything remains quiet for the next five minutes.”
He waited until Peters had forwarded the command before addressing Peterson.
“Where is Davids located? And what’s his mate’s name?”
“It’s Davidson, sir. And they’re currently walking this section.” Without the slightest hesitation Peterson’s forefinger pinpointed one of the first side tunnels they’d passed. It was also one of the longest, clearly some major artery connecting the Fleet in which they were standing with another important line of the system.
“Damn,” John muttered, eyes flitting in widening circles around Peterson’s digit. They couldn’t have been situated in a more inopportune place for a swift approach if they’d tried. Desperate, John searched for a bypass – with Sherlock a convenient alley always appeared, allowing them to shave off minutes of time and apprehend their culprit when they least suspected it – but the map didn’t obligingly reveal a handy shortcut no matter how fiercely he eyeballed the sheet.
Behind him the radio crackled. As Peters listened, annoyance crept over his face.
“They’re forging ahead,” he said. “Of course they would. Davidson again.” Three minutes had passed since he’d relayed John’s order.
“Give me that,” John ordered, gesturing towards the radio. Peters handed him the device, clipped the earphones over John’s helmet, and activated the microphone.
“Davids!” Bellowing in his angry Captain Watson voice helped loosen the tight valve sealing his chest . “This is Dr Watson speaking, your commanding officer for the duration of this operation. You and Davidson extinguish your lights immediately and start retreating. Over.”
Peters flicked a switch and John’s ears filled with splashing sounds and a strange male voice, breathless and excited.
“Sir, apologies, sir. But we’ve found Mr Holmes’ brother. He’s unharmed. Over.”
Peters’ fingers slipped, flipping the switch. Impatiently, John waved aside the man’s apology as he barked into the microphone: “Can I speak to him? Over.”
“John?” Waves of relief washed over John upon hearing his friend’s emollient baritone.
“Yes Sherlock, it’s John,” he shouted into the microphone, batting at Peters’ interfering fingers. “Are you all right? Over.”
“Yeah, fine. Just a little disoriented,” Sherlock replied. The exhaustion in his voice told a different story but that was a minor difficulty easily overcome by lots of tea and Mrs Hudson smothering Sherlock with biscuits and plumping their sofa cushions just the way he liked them before arranging them behind his head.
“That’s good, Sherlock.” John smiled. “That’s good. Davids and Davidson will accompany you. It’s about—” He estimated the distance. “—two and a half miles at the most. Can you do that for me, Sherlock?”
“Of course, John. I’m not some stupid idiot.” Sherlock’s indignation poured like sacred balm into John’s ears.
“Yes, you are,” John muttered under his breath, but softly, so no one would hear.
Except he was an idiot, Sherlock reflected as he staggered along between Mycroft’s men. The mere fact that these were Mycroft’s men was already singularly vexing. His brother would never let him hear the end of it. Another entry on Mycroft’s list of all the stupid stunts his baby brother had pulled off.
Thankfully he hadn’t been down on his knees when those lackeys found him. That would have been the ultimate humiliation. After his breakdown he’d regained his footing and plodded on along the endless arteries draining London’s wastewater. Without any actual plan – that had dissolved with the mortifying tears stinging his eyes before he blinked them away. But moving was better than silently waiting for the end to arrive. Long ago he’d vowed he’d never go down quietly. His farewell to the world would be spectacular, like jumping from a rooftop.
That idea, perhaps, had been the toughest to fight, the dread his life would be snuffed out in these sewers, like the flickering light of a dying candle with John and Mrs Hudson never knowing what had befallen him. He was not merely an idiot; he was the biggest idiot that ever lived. If only he’d kept a close eye on his Bunsen burner and not reached for that petri dish this whole disastrous rigmarole would never have ensued. Instead he’d be spending a quiet evening with John, snug in front of 221B’s mantelpiece and a crackling fire. John’s hands he imagined folded around the pages of one of those silly spy novels his friend preferred while he...
Stuck deep in the mire of bleak meditation, the loud splashing had still been unmistakable.
Wild hope had sprung up inside Sherlock’s breast, followed shortly by a stab of dread straight at his heart. What if these were the people who’d abducted him – and he did have two or three ideas about those, the Bunsen Boys figuring amongst them first and foremost. If only Lestrade had listened—
But why would his captors first abandon him, only to return later and check whether he was still in place, awaiting the grim reaper’s arrival obediently with his behind firmly stuck atop that bloody chair? Surely that was a highly illogical undertaking, even for the average human being, most of whom, as he’d discovered over the years, didn’t generally appreciate a rational approach to life. In all probability it was a work party, sent down to deal with some reported blockage.
Throwing caution to the wind Sherlock started running, the chair skipping along in eager expectation of less morose creatures for company.
“Hello,” Sherlock shouted. A faint glimmer rippled far ahead, as elusive and indifferent as the stars twinkling against the velvet backdrop of the universe. Sherlock was just about to release another cry when it fluttered and died, leaving him cloaked in dismal darkness once more.
“Oh, for Christ’s sake,” he swore and struggled on, denying hope the chance to back off again. “Please,” he called out, “I need help. You have nothing to fear. I know you’re there. I’ve seen your light. Turn it back on again. I can’t see a thing.”
Suddenly the light flared up again, a swivelling beam whose brightness blinded him when it caught his eyes.
“Jesus Christ,” he heard and then he was sagging against a vinyl-covered chest, arms circling his shoulders in support. Another figure materialised and circumnavigated Sherlock and his human prop, the ridge of a helmet digging into his shoulder as the man bent his head to pass beneath the sloping ceiling.
“Apologies, sir,” the man murmured. “Please let me help you.” Cool metal slithered between his wrists and his limp, frozen hands were deftly caught by warm fingers that efficiently massaged the life back into his blood-starved digits.
The man sustaining him shifted his grip, causing Sherlock’s cheekbone to brush the cloth of his sleeve.
Botany wool, superior quality gabardine, Mycroft minion his brain signalled and he groaned.
The garage corner had been converted into a temporary teashop, complete with a choice selection of pastries and a motherly attendant ready to commiserate with the men’s hardships and pass them their mugs of tea and a platter with fruitcake and the house’s best compliments.
‘Anthea’ oversaw the proceedings from beside the door, next to a nurse who presented each member of the rescuing team with a shock blanket upon resurfacing.
John thanked the man but didn’t accept one; anticipation tingled in his blood and set it afire. Sherlock would arrive in another ten minutes at the most.
“Mr Holmes convey his gratitude,” ‘Anthea’ told him, fingers flittering over her mobile’s keys. “We have a car at the ready behind the curtain.”
“I’d rather counted upon it,” John answered. “Not many cabs about at five a.m. on a Wednesday morning and it’s highly unlikely one would take us, given the stink.”
Predictably, the woman didn’t quirk an eyebrow, nor lift her gaze. She did raise a hand to brush back a lock of hair that had fallen forward and was impeding her view of the screen. So she was human after all, John mused, and not a sophisticated android designed to suit Mycroft Holmes’ eclectic tastes in personal assistants.
“Care for a cuppa, Dr Watson?” the teashop attendant asked, offering a tray with a cup and a Danish pastry. “No sugar and a dollop of milk, just the way you like it.”
“Thanks.” John accepted the fine bone china cup and the cake, not bothering to comment on her assumptions regarding the way he preferred his tea. Of course her information was accurate; John would have been disappointed if it had been otherwise.
“Sir.” Peters pressed at his elbow. “They’re coming in, sir.”
John spun towards the door. A yellow helmet bobbed into view first, soon followed by a tangled mat of sodden fur. This turned out to be Sherlock’s hair, sitting atop his head like a badly made wig. Blood ran from his forehead into his eyes and trickled across his cheekbones. His lips were blue and his whole frame shivered beneath the shock blanket the nurse wrapped immediately around his shoulders. Death warmed over probably looked healthier but his chattering teeth proved he was alive at least.
“J… J… John,” he managed and John smiled.
“Sherlock,” he said, hugging his friend. “You stupid git, you smell worse than the flat.”
“I was cleaning it, John,” Sherlock protested. “And I was going to get out of those sewers. There was no need to bring in Mycroft and hand him a field day.”
“My way or the highway,” John answered. “We can lock you in again if you insist. What’s that?” he addressed the man who’d come up last, hefting a wooden kitchen chair onto the platform.
“Mr Holmes insisted we brought it along, Dr Watson, sir. Claims it is evidence.”
“Not evidence but a clue,” Sherlock corrected, haughtily. The shock blanket obviously worked like a treat at restoring his physical and mental capacities. “Chances are the wood still carries some fingerprints.”
“Perhaps. But first we’re off to the shower and Bedfordshire,” John hedged.
Every single window looking down on Baker Street was dark except for the pair sitting above Speedy’s awning. Light peeked between the curtains and a shadow could be discerned behind the panes of glass on the right, gliding from one side to the other like a puppet in a Wayang theatre show.
“Mrs Hudson’s still up then?” Sherlock said, clutching the shock blanket a little tighter around his throat.
“Errm, she’s not alone, I’m afraid,” John said, nodding his thanks to Peters, who was holding the door open for him. Another of Mycroft’s cars glided to a halt just as Sherlock alighted from their transport with less than his usual nimble grace. “That’s her coach, I suppose.” He slotted his key into the lock.
“What?” Sherlock enquired and then a thundercloud descended over his features. “Oh, for crying out loud,” he snarled, and with an agility that took John by surprise shoved him into the door and scaled the stairs three steps at a time. Nothing in his movements indicated he’d just emerged from a gruelling interval traipsing the gutters with a chair dangling from his hands tied behind his back.
“Oh hello, Sherlock dear, you’re back again,” John heard Mrs Hudson warbling. “Just in time to thank Tilly here for the wonderful job she’s done. The place looks like new. Best take off those clothes before you sit down, love, or you’ll dirty the sofa cushions.”
“Tilly?” Sherlock repeated, just as John reached the landing. Outrage and disbelief engaged in a firm battle for prominence as he repeated, “Tilly?”
John entered the flat to find Sherlock looming darkly (and very, very smelly) over Tilly/Hilda, who perched in his chair, indispensable mug of tea in her right hand and the remains of one of Mrs Hudson’s rock cakes in her left. Around her every horizontal and vertical surface of the flat sparkled, even the skull on the mantel looked squeaky-clean and all the cheerier for it. The smell of a thousand artificially concocted limes drenched in eucalyptus oil and meshed together with tons of dried lavender nearly knocked John to the ground. Still, it was vastly preferable to many of the other odours that had wafted up his nose during the course of the evening.
Sherlock appeared oblivious to this vast improvement of their living premises. Instead he was drilling his gaze into Tilly’s eyes. Countless times John had witnessed inveterate criminals break down beneath that stare in the Yard’s interrogation room, but Tilly returned the consulting detective’s glare with the same cold disdain Sherlock himself forked out so liberally. For all his height and lofty manners, her curlers and the sweep of her pinny over her ample bosom announced loud and clear the great Sherlock Holmes was no more than a nasty spot of dirt to her.
“If it weren’t for you having a flatmate and a landlady I’d have told Mr Holmes to find someone else for the job,” she informed him. “And now I must be off. Mr Holmes just rang to tell me I’ve got to clean up after a party at Buckingham Palace. Things got a bit wild, it seems. But then they usually do with that lot.”
“Oh dear,” Mrs Hudson commiserated. “I never knew Mycroft was such a slave driver. You must talk to him about it, Sherlock, next time he visits.”
“Don’t you worry, luv.” Tilly patted Mrs Hudson’s hand. “He pays very generous overtime and you should see the hamper he sends for Christmas. Those Bolly bubbles are amazing. Some people have all the nice manners, you know.”
With that parting shot she left the flat. “The trolley is in the kitchen, through there, Michaelson,” she could be heard directing and then the sharp rap of her wedge mule slippers rattled down the stairs.
“You know her?” John enquired of his friend, who was glowering at the doorway.
“Unfortunately, yes,” Sherlock replied. “Mycroft sent her over after a minor mishap at Montague Street in an attempt to appease the landlord. The man threatened to sue me for burning down the attic. Which was rubbish, of course.” He sniffed. “For no discernible reason the woman took an immediate dislike to me. The feeling is thoroughly mutual.”
“Oh, I think she’s lovely,” Mrs Hudson interjected. “She was taken with my walnut date cake recipe and she showed me how to clean your lino without getting my hands all wet.”
“I’m delighted to hear it,” Sherlock murmured. “Next time she shows up don’t let her in.”
“Sherlock?” Mrs Hudson threw him a sincerely pained look.
“I think we could both do with a shower, Mrs H,” John explained. “It’s been a long night for all of us.”
“Well,” Mrs Hudson said, but she pushed herself out of his chair nonetheless. “I for one have had a lovely evening. I don’t think I’ve had this much fun since the night Mr Hudson was executed, remember, Sherlock?”
“Distinctly,” Sherlock answered and headed in the direction of the bathroom. Which, John thought, was perhaps the only suitable response.
The hands on John’s alarm were poised at a one-hundred-degree angle when John woke. The last time he’d slept this far into the day had been nearly two decades ago, during his partying university days. A sassy ray of sunlight breached the curtains of his west-facing window and skipped over his nose. From below rose the murmur of voices.
John listened but the ebb and flow lacked the tinge of hostility that tended to swamp the flat’s atmosphere during Mycroft’s visits. A bark of laughter revealed their visitor as Greg. In all probability the DI had dropped by to verify his dream team was still alive and kicking and ready for action.
“Morning, John,” Greg hailed him over the rim of his steaming mug from John’s usual place at the dining table when John came downstairs a few minutes later. “Or good evening, rather.”
John wasn’t surprised to find Greg doing the honours to the plate of ginger snaps conveniently placed next to his left arm. The sight of Sherlock tucking with relish into one of Mrs Hudson’s justly famous full English, however, had John quirk an eyebrow. Especially when Sherlock proved he was so intent on setting a new world record for shovelling scrambled eggs and mushrooms into his mouth he merely nodded at John with busily masticating jaws.
“Just a minute, John dear,” Mrs Hudson sang from the kitchen to the accompaniment of toast popping up from the toaster that fell like music on John’s ears. “Did you sleep well?”
‘Like a babe,” John replied. “That certainly smells delicious, Mrs Hudson.”
“Just this once, mind,” she said, planting the plate under his nose. As their landlady repeated this particular incantation three times a week at least, he duly ignored the remark and joined Sherlock in wolfing down breakfast at the fastest possible rate. The succulent aroma of bacon and eggs wafting up his nostrils greatly helped to chase away the previous day’s succession of olfactory horrors.
“So,” Greg resumed a conversation that had obviously been interrupted by breakfast being served and John’s arrival. “We found a smudge on that chair that might be part of a fingerprint and scratches on the legs that seem to match those on the hood of the car, so whoever your kidnappers were they were a sloppy bunch.”
As luck would have it, Sherlock had just taken another bite. His eyes bulged while his molars worked furiously at chomping toast, champing at the bit as he was to correct the unfortunate DI.
“A most accurate self-portrait, Detective Inspector,” he spat when he’d finally swallowed his mouthful. “These men are actually extremely clever. Their mistake was adjusting their modus operandi to your sloppy practices. The vehicle they used bore Mycroft’s number plates or I never would have opened that door. Your incredible laziness and general stupidity led them to believe they could get away with leaving the car next to the entry to the sewage system. If it weren’t for my despicable brother and John here it would have taken me hours to free myself.”
“That’s what I meant,” Greg protested feebly, dropping the ginger snap he’d just picked up.
“They were stupid not to do me in,” Sherlock agreed, “as clearly that was their objective, but if it weren’t for you not arresting Teddy Bunsen when you had the chance—” He broke off in patent disgust.
“Fine, fine,” Greg tried to appease the piqued consulting detective. “Perhaps you’re right…” Sherlock sniffed. “Of course you’re right,” the DI amended hastily. “But they’ve overplayed their hand and you’ll have the Met’s full cooperation catching those wankers. Look, when can you come down and examine that car and chair?”
“Hmm, I don’t know.” Sherlock turned towards John. “What do you say, John? Anything planned for this evening?”
John glanced around the flat, noticing the shiny jacket of his latest Doctor Who DVD on the coffee table. Yesterday he’d looked forward to a quiet evening stuck in front of the telly with Chinese takeaway but as usual Sherlock had decided differently. His body properly refuelled, he could feel the adrenaline rushing through it once again. After all, playing at heroes alongside Sherlock Holmes was far more fun than anything Messrs Moffat and Gatiss devised.
“Give me five minutes,” he temporised. “And I’ll be right along.”