Chapter 6: Saturday
I'd like to add for all you Americans out there, the "football" is what we call a soccer ball, not an American football. I know it seems a minute detail but it's important later. Thanks!
“How are you feeling?”
Sherlock blinked into reality, slipping out the door of his considerably tidier Mind Palace. For the first time, he was seeing something other than lights and shadows; there were the fuzziest trace of shapes in his eyes, a tangle of blotches and shadows that still didn’t make any sense but was a damn sight more interesting than greyish-black. John was no longer beside him, but sitting on the couch just above his head, rustling a newspaper.
“Head hurts rather badly. What time is it?”
“Eleven in the morning. You’ve been sleeping for ages.”
“Not sleeping. Thinking.”
“I told you to sleep,” John said, exasperated.
“And I wanted to think.” He stretched, noting the stiffness from a second night on the couch and winced as a wave of pain hit his temples. “Ugh, that hurts.”
“Need anything? Breakfast, a cold compress, painkillers?”
Sherlock paused in the act of massaging his own skull. “Why?”
“Why would you need anything?”
“Why are you so intent on taking care of me? Why all the concern?” That was it, he realized; that was the question he’d been turning over in his head since he’d come back from the hospital.
John shifted on the couch, silent, and seemed to be measuring his words. “Well, I suppose I do feel a bit guilty about leaving last night – I mean, I did promise. But . . . come on, we’re friends, right? That’s what friends do for each other.”
“Oh.” Not the answer he was looking for, but for the life of him he didn’t know was. “Well, at any rate, thank you.”
“No problem,” John said, sounding pleasantly surprised. “So you’re sure you don’t need anything? I know eating’s not really your thing, but I have it on good authority that food tastes good.”
“No digestion. I just regained my ability to think, I’m not surrendering it so readily.” He hesitated. Social norms would file the previous night under “exigent circumstances” and dictate he not bring it up again, but his head was throbbing quite badly. “I don’t suppose . . . you could do that thing from last night? With your fingers?”
He could practically feel the heat radiating from John’s face. “You’ve got to learn to be more specific.”
“Why? No one else is here.”
He let out that little huff he always did when he was beaten, and Sherlock had to smile. “Fine. Come here.” He smacked his knees with his palms, and Sherlock wriggled up to lay his head on them.
Unfortunately, his sight being what it was, he dropped his head a bit too close for comfort and had to jerk back up again and the whole thing was just uncomfortable as hell. Damn it all, he was actually blushing. “Um – er –I –”
“Oh, good God, here,” John said exasperatedly, taking Sherlock’s head in his hands and guiding it considerably further down his legs. “Just stay there and we’ll all be fine, all right?”
“Mm-hmm,” he mumbled, for once at a loss for words, and John’s fingertips began to move through his hair again, each swoop easing away the pain as if by magic. Sherlock Holmes had never put much stock in physical contact but dear God, this had to be what heaven felt like. It was just like he needed. Of course it was what he needed, it was John, John always knew what he needed – how did he do that?
After what could have been five minutes or half an hour, the hands in question hesitated; maybe he thought he’d fallen asleep. “Is that better?”
“Mm, dear God, don’t stop,” he rumbled, arching his neck into the touch like a cat.
A throat cleared halfway across the room. “This a bad time?”
John jumped up so fast Sherlock nearly tumbled off the couch. “Lestrade!”
“Mrs Hudson let me in, but – but I can come back, you know, if you’re . . . busy.”
“Nonsense,” Sherlock said briskly, springing up off the couch. Lestrade didn’t care that deeply about his health; there was one reason he would come. “What have you got for me?”
John, true to form, came around a step behind. “Oh no. No, you cannot be serious.”
“We need his help.”
“Well, you’re just going to have to manage, because he’s not going anywhere until he can see. Doctor’s orders.”
“Look, there’s a body that looks like it’s been mauled by a dog in a flat locked from the inside, now –”
“Really?” Sherlock said, intrigued. “Were there –?”
“Sit down,” John growled, and Sherlock drew back, because John was using his Army Voice. He’d only used his Army Voice once before, and usually it meant the recipient was in danger of physical harm if he did not comply. Even more interestingly, Sherlock noted that his heart rate had elevated slightly as soon as he heard it, and there was a slight sheen of sweat condensing on his palms. Odd.
“Just give it two minutes, that’s all he usually needs –”
“Not going to happen.” John’s voice was getting terse.
“You’re being ridiculous,” Sherlock said, finding his voice and rolling his eyes. Still an odd feeling, despite a few patches and shapes. “I’ll be fine –”
“Stay out of this, Sherlock!” John snapped, grabbing his elbow and pulling him behind him.
“Look, John, he’ll be surrounded by policemen, they’ll have eyes on him constantly –”
“I don’t care! Look at him, Greg, hasn’t he done enough for you? He’s fucking blind! What more do you want?!”
The room seemed to echo, both Sherlock and Lestrade too surprised by his shout to respond. “It’s a crime scene, John, not the Afghan desert,” Sherlock said quietly. “I’ll be perfectly safe.”
“What, like you always are on cases? Cases where you get chased and beaten and shot at? What happens when you get shot at and you can’t fucking see?”
Sherlock pulled up short, wishing for the thousandth time he could see his flatmate’s face. It took a hell of a lot to rattle John Watson, but at the moment he sounded genuinely worried. “I rarely get shot at the actual scene of the crime,” he pointed out, attempting to peel John’s fingers from his sleeve. Undeterred, John pulled so that their backs were to Lestrade, his fingers tightening even more.
“But what if you get hurt?” he asked, his voice low and urgent. “I can’t let that happen, not again.”
Almost without his volition, his hand came up to cover John’s. “It’s no less dangerous than letting me hang about here bored,” he joked, but John didn’t even have to reply for him to know he wasn’t convinced. “I’ll be fine, John. I’ll be with you, won’t I?”
That seemed to be the only thing that could’ve made John relax, if only marginally. “One word from me and you’re back here, understand?”
“Perfectly.” He smiled, and he knew John smiled back.
Lestrade cleared his throat so loudly it had to hurt. “Yes. Case. Dead body.”
“Text me the address, we’ll take a cab and meet you there,” Sherlock said briskly, adjusting John’s grip on his elbow to the traditional blind-guide position. “Lead the way, Dr Watson.”
Crime scenes were supposed to be messy. They were supposed to be bloody, possibly smelly, almost always dirty. Sherlock thrived on that messy, on the I-Spy-like jumble that camouflaged the essential and set his mind whirling. Crime scenes were supposed to be chaos.
They were not supposed to be an indiscernible blur.
“Where’s the damn body?” he hissed to John in frustration, under the pretext of straightening his scarf.
“Two o’clock,” he murmured, gently pulling on his elbow until he was angled in the right direction. “Sprawled on the floor with his throat torn out. Quite nasty, really.”
“Two paces.” He stepped forward and Sherlock followed him, until something in the carpet squished under his shoes. Ah, blood. Now they were getting somewhere.
“Watch it, freak, I don’t want your footprints all over my crime scene,” Donovan called from somewhere, her usual snort of derision.
Sherlock turned to deduce her to pieces . . . and found that it was much harder to deduce what he couldn’t see. “Yes, Sally. I’ll . . . keep that in mind.”
The room quieted slightly, palpably surprised; that was the third time in his adult life he’d failed to find a sufficiently witty rejoinder. John’s grip on his elbow tightened. “It’s too soon,” he murmured so only Sherlock could hear. “If you need to go, just say the word –”
“Please, John, not in front of the children,” he said brusquely, pulling free of John’s grasp. For the first time since Baker Street, including the cab ride, John let him go, and Sherlock felt a twinge in his chest that he only belatedly realised was regret.
“So.” He cleared his throat and snapped out his magnifying glass, although all it got him was a magnified blur. Fantastic. “I don’t suppose you could describe the scene for me?”
Silence. Even better – he was still blind and now his seeing-eye dog was having a strop. His usual MO would be to let John sulk until he was ready to come back, but he was uncomfortably aware of the eyes watching him from behind; he was supposed to have results, now.
More huffy silence. His pride prickled. “Fine. Have it your way.” Snapping his collar up defiantly, he stood with more flair than necessary and strode over to the wall, his hands out slightly until they brushed against the wall. Cheap wallpaper, peeling slightly at the corners; an old apartment, definitely not in line with the vaguely visible business suit the body was dressed in. Separated, then, living out of his savings account. He ran his fingers along until he found the corner, turning around to survey the room. A couple blotches, some person-shaped blobs. Blobs that were staring at him expectantly. He tried to move back to the body, but a table caught against his side and he had to clutch at it to keep it from toppling over. In an attempt to salvage the remnants of his dignity, he smoothed his palms over its surface, making a soft “ah” noise as if gleaning some sort of inspiration from an imitation-oak table top. John snorted audibly, while Sally snickered something unpleasant to Anderson. The frustration bubbling in his stomach increased tenfold.
“So you know what happened yet?” Lestrade asked.
It was that innocuous little question that finally sent him over the edge. “No, Lestrade, I do not know what happened yet,” he replied testily, each word steadily turning into a snarl, “I do hope it is not too inconvenient that I'm taking longer than usual to do your job, but perhaps you'll grant me a special dispensation on account of I can't see. Is that what you wanted to hear? Is that what you've all been waiting for me to admit? Fine! Fine! I can't see a damned thing and I can't deduce what I can't see, so what am I doing here? Why even bother? The great Sherlock Holmes, the world's only consulting detective, brought low by a half-hearted blow to the head! Why not just shoot him and put him out of his misery? Why not just put him down like the useless mutt he is?” He sank down and rocked back onto his haunches, breathing hard, hands at his temples. The cotton had invaded Mind Palace again, except this time it was on fire with frustration, scorching the walls, wiping out valuable data, blocking out everything but his own self-loathing. His breathing was speeding up, his heart pounding out of control; dimly, as if from a great distance, he heard Donovan stage-whisper, “The freak's finally gone mad.”
And then like a torch in the dark there was that gun-calloused hand on his shoulder, that tea and petrichor in the air. His heart rate slowed, if only minimally; such a heady rush of relief washed over him that he found himself leaning into the touch like a lifeline. “Sherlock. It’s going to be all right.”
“I can’t,” he rasped, licking his painfully dry lips. “I can’t –” Can’t what? It was obvious he couldn’t think, his little display had ensured everyone south of Edinburgh knew that; so here he stood, stammering like a cretin with no new information to offer. God, he was never going to hear the end of this, surely half the Yard was whipping out camera phones even now –
“Hey. Hey.” Both hands on his shoulders now, breath tickling his face. “You know what? Ignore them. You said they were idiots and you were right, so just shut them out and don’t waste another thought on them. Just focus on me. Can you do that?”
He nodded, taking a deep, centring breath. Focus on John. The callouses scratching at his coat, the faint scent of tea and musk, the blurred haze where his face should be, where he could feel the concern pooling. From anyone else it would be condescending, but it was just . . . John.
“Better. Much better. Now tell me what you need me to do.”
Another steadying breath. “Be my eyes. Tell me everything, down to the last detail, down to the last fibre on his jacket.” He reached out until he found his collarbone and fisted his fingers in the cable knit, desperate that he understand. “You have to be observant, John, you have to tell me everything.”
“I can do that.” He left off the I think, but they both heard it loud and clear. Still, warm fingers threaded through his own and guided them back to the cosy fold of his elbow so they could both face the body, and somehow Sherlock was far more reassured than he should have been. “All right, well, body's late-to-mid fifties, balding, bit of a paunch, cheap suit but expensive watch. Tan line on the ring finger suggests separated or divorced, fairly recently. According to the crime scene report he's recently back from Singapore on business. Nothing in his immediate vicinity but an unused hypodermic needle and a . . . football, fresh new one, but –”
“A football?” Sherlock narrowed his eyes, the Mind Palace slowly but surely emptying itself out. “Why would a fat corporate man have a football?”
“Sherlock, there's something off about this ball . . .”
Sherlock wasn't strictly speaking listening. “Has anybody checked his closet?” he called to the house at large, almost rising, but that would mean breaking contact with John, so he decided against it. “Has anybody looked through his clothes?”
“Nothing, er, suspicious,” Lestrade said, although his tone said there was something plenty suspicious about the current situation. “Just clothes and the like.”
“Any sportswear, anything you would exercise in? Football cleats, socks, shorts, anything?”
“Um, a few t-shirts, some pyjama pants, but now that you mention it, not really.” A short pause as Lestrade caught up. “So what's a bloke like this doing with a football?”
“Sherlock, this football is not normal, the air plug is . . . here, feel.” His hand wrapped around Sherlock's wrist and guided it into the football, his fingertips brushing what should have been an air plug but was instead larger and far more complex.
“So the thieves somehow managed to smuggle a dog in here, rip out his throat, and claw in a football . . . why? What was so special about this football? What could have been inside it?”
“Could've been another smuggling operation, maybe jewels or artefacts, but it doesn't explain how there isn't a single dog hair or paw print or anything. Best we got was a few inconclusive bloody smudges and a door that was locked from the inside.”
“Any sign of forced entry by the window?”
“Locked, and no one’s fingerprints but his own.” Lestrade made an audible nose of frustration. “So if something was in the football, where could it have gone?”
“Well, it could hardly have just walked away, now, could it?” Sherlock asked testily, trying to take a step and accidentally kicking the body in the face. “You said there was a hypodermic needle. What was in it?”
“A sedative, something barbiturate. You think he was a junkie?”
“Can’t’ve been,” John said, shifting a bit awkwardly so he could examine the body while still tucking Sherlock’s hand reassuringly against him. “No previous needle marks, and somehow I doubt he just happened to get mauled the first time he tried shooting up.”
“So he intended to sedate something else, possibly the dog coming after him, but for some reason was unable to deliver the dose in time, but how would a dog gain access to a locked room . . . ?”
“Sherlock,” John said.
“Are there any other points of entry? A bathroom window, a fire escape?”
“The best we could find was an air vent that was missing a grille, but there’s no way a human could fit through,” Lestrade said. “Or a dog big enough to do that kind of damage to a man’s neck.”
“Sherlock,” John said, tugging slightly.
“He was a smuggler, for God’s sake, surely there’s some kind of escape hatch or trapdoor that your lot was simply too thick to notice –”
“Sherlock, the football!”
“Yes, John, there was something in the football that the dog wanted, brilliant deduction, now do try to keep up,” Sherlock said impatiently, his brain still ticking away, although today it more closely resembled a hamster on a wheel than its usual well-oiled machine.
“But that’s just it, I think the dog was in the football.”
That stopped just about everyone dead. “Come again?” Lestrade asked politely, while Sherlock just stared at the blur that was his once-sane flatmate.
“Look here . . .” John wrapped his hand around the outside of Sherlock’s, a bit awkwardly as his was somewhat smaller, and guided him until he was fingering the rough edges of the torn ball. “The casing is peeled outward, not inward, like something burst out rather than dug in. And there are a bunch of little claw marks –” Fingers pressed his down gently until he felt the needle-thin marks in the rubber “– all along the inside, but the outside is fine. That’s why he had the sedative; he already knew about the animal. Whatever hurt him clawed its way out of the football first.”
And then in a flash of neurons it was all there, all perfect and solved and there was a rush of euphoria more miraculous than dropping a puzzle and having every piece fall in place.
“Of course,” he breathed, and then he was off, whirling in his usual circle around the room, knocking Donovan to one side and making Anderson slam into the wall in his haste to get out of the way. “Of course! So bloody obvious, dunno how I didn’t think of it before – I must be getting as bad as you cretins! It all makes sense, the football, the needle, Singapore! Singapore! John, you’re brilliant!” And having come full circle he seized John’s shoulders, popped a kiss on his forehead, and led him by the arm out of the flat.
“Wait – where are you going?”
“Home!” Sherlock called merrily over his shoulder. “Nothing more to do!”
“But you haven’t told us who killed him!”
“I don’t know, not yet at least, but I do know how, and that was what you all brought me in for, wasn’t it?”
“Then how?” The all-too-familiar howl of frustration made him grin, even as he dragged the curiously silent John down the stairs.