Chapter 1 - Green Grow the Rushes, O by A.J. Hall
He was on the 09.21 First Great Western train from Paddington to Oxford, just outside Reading, when the irritation began to take hold. Sherlock held out against his baser instincts until a change in the skyline told him his destination was at hand.
Sherlock rose to his feet, swung his bag down from the rack, and looked at the young woman — IT support engineer, amateur drama enthusiast, too-ambitious cook — on the opposite side of the Formica table.
“Given you’ve never met your fiancé’s family before, don’t you think he’s more likely than you to know whether or not ‘they love him really’?”
He followed up while she was still gulping. “Also, your starting position is wrong. Notwithstanding the amateur psychoanalysis to which you’ve been subjecting this so-called ‘quiet coach’ for the last forty-three minutes, your fiancé isn’t worried how his family feel about him. But he knows by bitter personal experience that they treat attempted interlopers like an optimally functioning human immune system treats a typhoid bacillus.”
The tannoy clicked into life.
Sherlock spread his broadest fake smile across his face. “For the purposes of this weekend, you are that bacillus. And I do hope you enjoy Leamington Spa.”
The train slid into Oxford station. A gaggle of people were pressed against the door: the hares who had leapt from their seats when the train had barely passed Didcot. Predictably, having been overly impatient before, they were idiotically unprepared once the train stopped. Their bodies and luggage barred his escape to the platform. He was barely restraining his impulse to tell them exactly what he thought of them when a hand caught his shoulder. He turned, to see the young man from the carriage.
“Just wanted to say thanks, mate,” the young man mumbled. “Don’t know if it’ll do any good, but appreciated you trying.”
“People don’t usually say that.” The words brought back a memory, the last one he wanted to recall at this moment.
“Yeah, well, I could tell you’d been in the same boat as us. Been there, done that, got the T-shirt, eh? Anyway, cheers. Be seeing you.”
The young man was wrong, of course, about everything that mattered — no family had ever been presented with Sherlock Holmes as a potential son-in-law, nor ever would be — but there was something oddly comforting about his casual assumption.
“Passes for a complete member of the human race, at least on superficial inspection,” Sherlock muttered, and shouldered his bag.
The faint warmth lasted until he was passing Worcester College. The sounds of a choir rehearsal drifted over the high, lichened stone wall.
“l’ll sing you twelve, O,
Green grow the rushes, O.”
God, that soloist had a voice on him! If only one of the choir schools had caught him early enough, given him the technique to polish that raw talent.
“What are your twelve, O?”
Amateur youth choir, well-drilled and well-meaning. A pinchbeck setting for that glorious boy soprano.
“Twelve for the twelve Apostles
Eleven for the eleven who went to heaven,
Ten for the ten commandments,
Nine for the nine bright shiners.”
In Oxford for some choral festival. Should do well, notwithstanding their limitations.
“Eight for the April Rainers,
Seven for the seven stars in the sky, and
Six for the six proud walkers.
Five for the symbols at your door,
And four for the Gospel Makers.”
Arrangements designed to flatter a varied range of vocal abilities and a shrewdly judged choice of material. Always play to your strengths.
“Three, three, the rivals,
Two, two, the lily-white boys,
Clothèd all in green, O”
And now for the boy soprano again.
“One is one and all alone and ever more shall be so.”
The pain hit him all the harder because he had allowed himself to forget for a moment. And then the whole choir, singing the reprise as if to turn the knife in the wound.
“One is one and all alone and ever more shall be so.”
Tight-lipped, he made his way down Walton Street toward his rendezvous.
John dropped the mobile back into his pocket.
Sarah looked at him. “Nothing?”
“Still nothing.” He hunched his shoulders, realised he was doing so, and de-hunched just as Sarah spoke.
“John, this is ridiculous. You can’t tense up just because your insanely demanding flatmate hasn’t sent you a text in the last hour and a half.”
“Have you ever been the babysitter to a hyperactive toddler?” He regretted the analogy almost before it was out of his mouth. It was bad enough when Mycroft behaved as if Sherlock couldn’t be trusted to cross the road unsupervised. He had no business doing the same. Still, from Sarah’s expression, he’d struck a chord.
“You bet. I’ve had to deal with Jessica and Joshua. That’s my older brother’s two. God, they were terrors when they were tiny. Still are, to be honest. Mind you, what chance do they have with a mother like that? Look — when you meet Cressida, don’t mention vaccination. Trust me, life’s too short. Oh, and don’t let the kids eat anything sugary. And, when I say, ‘let,’ if they snatch the food off your plate, Cressida will still hold you personally responsible for every cavity which shows up in their teeth for the next decade —”
“Sarah, leave the Situation: Enemy Forces briefing until we’re closer to the engagement. One thing at a time. When you were baby-sitting, what was the most frightening sound you never wanted to hear?”
“Silence,” she said automatically, and then, “Oh. I see.”
John nodded. “Quite.” He put on his best cod-American accent. “It’s quiet out there. Too darn quiet. I don’t like it. Something’s gonna happen.” Fooling around made him feel better, just a little.
Sarah, responding to the lightening of his mood, grinned back at him. “Let’s face it, John, it’s Sherlock. Something’s always going to happen. He’s his own personal, all-terrain disturbance in the Force. Only, this weekend, the disturbance is going to happen in Oxford, and we, thank heaven for small mercies, will be in the Yorkshire Dales. Don’t think I don’t appreciate it.”
“That you’ve passed up a chance to get stabbed or shot or blown up in Oxford to support me through this godawful family shindig. I expect the UPS man to show up with your canonisation papers from the Vatican any moment.”
John shook his head. “I’d have come anyway, you know that. But whatever this Oxford case is, Sherlock didn’t want me on it. He told me so last Tuesday.”
“And he didn’t say why?” Sarah’s brow creased.
“No.” In fact, he hadn’t said much for most of the week, which had contributed to John’s developing sense of unease. Sherlock’s silences were a known part of life, but this had had an odd texture to it.
Unhappiness, part of his mind supplied. Which, from his experience with Sherlock, meant one probable cause.
“It could be lots of things. But, if you asked me to bet, I’d say Mycroft’s manipulated him into taking a case for him, and he hates himself for having agreed. And he doesn’t want me involved because it’d mean admitting that.”
“Don’t you think Sherlock overreacts a bit to his brother?”
Of course, that would be how it would strike any normal observer. John recalled an anonymous black car and a none-too-subtle implied threat, a phalanx of CCTV cameras swivelling to track his progress down a nondescript London street. “That’s what Mycroft wants you to think.”
Sarah laughed. “Oh, come on. Sherlock’s paranoia’s rubbing off on you. His brother’s a minor civil servant, not Ernst Stavro Blofeld.”
“Again, what Mycroft wants you to think.” He hesitated. “I’ve met Taliban warlords I’d turn my back on sooner than I’d turn it on him. He can set out to talk you into doing something utterly unreasonable, and it doesn’t hit you until half an hour later just how outrageous his proposal was.”
“As if Sherlock didn’t make a habit of talking you into doing unreasonable things on a regular basis.”
“Yes, but with Sherlock you know exactly how insanely bonkers the thing he’s trying to get you to do is from the get-go. You just do it anyway.”
“And we’re talking about ‘normal’?”
“‘Normal’ is a comparative term. At least when it comes to the Holmes family.”
Sarah looked rueful. “When it comes to any family, to be honest. You might end up staggering back to Baker Street after a weekend with mine going, ‘Thank God. Eyes in the microwave. I understand them.’”
John laughed. “Amazing what you can understand with practice. Look, Peterborough already. Now, who’s the one you’re going to be godmother to, again? Your younger brother’s kid?”
The woman he had come to meet was sitting in C.S. Lewis’s carved oak chair in the back room of the pub, nursing an orange juice. He identified her instantly: early thirties, dark shadows under her eyes, a fragment of navy-blue and gold — Canadian passport, brand-new — visible through the unzipped inch or so at the top of her bag.
“Marie Ross? I’m Sherlock Holmes.”
“So — um — you got my emails, then?”
He refrained from the obvious retort. “Including the last one, yes.”
“Oh.” Her hand went to her mouth. “I did try to persuade Kim not to come —”
Uses her mother’s Christian name, but with reluctance. Her mother insists. Goes back to childhood, judging by the degree of discomfort. Reminds her of the isolation she suffered at school for being “different”.
He schooled his features into sympathetic interest, tinged with just a touch of puzzlement. “Yes, that does seem surprising.”
Marie’s eyes were bright with unshed tears. “Especially when she’s never believed in Captain Angel, not from the first. She had conniptions when I told her I was coming to England to look for him.” She glanced down at her handbag, then, swiftly, away.
Her passport where she can see it at all times — as can any pickpocket in Oxford. Not just an inexperienced traveller’s nervousness about its whereabouts. Battle honours. A victory, if small and partial.
“But, when you insisted, she decided to accompany you. While believing you were on a wild-goose chase and had no real chance of finding the man you were looking for.”
Why do people find the restatement of the obvious so peculiarly reassuring?
Marie nodded. “Yes. Though she had to take Valium to cope with the flight — she’s always been phobic, that’s why I’d never flown before — and it cost a fortune for her to book last minute. Pretty extreme way of saying ‘I told you so,’ eh?” She looked apologetic. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to sound so —”
Her face flamed.
He cut smoothly in before she could speak. “About the situation in general, I meant. Understandably. After all, if your mother is right, you’ve every reason to consider yourself badly treated, and if she’s not…” He left the sentence hanging.
She took the bait. “You know, that’s what I’ve been wondering the whole way over. What do I really want?” The pitch of her voice went up. “I mean, do I hope I’ve been played for a sucker, and Captain Angel was created out of thin air by some sicko who gets their kicks messing with people’s heads on the internet? Or do I hope he’s a real war veteran who’s been through absolute hell in Afghanistan and who’s now disappeared — committed suicide, got mixed up in something bad, whatever — because that validates my faith in him?”
She gulped air convulsively. “And does it make me a horrible person because when it comes down to it, however bad it is, whatever hell he’s been through, I’d give anything for him to be real? And with me?”
That hit him right in the gut. For one split second he was caught, utterly naked, stripped of words or defences. He forced himself to speak, making his voice as hard and detached as he could manage. “I’m not the man to ask what makes someone a horrible person. Anyone who knows me will tell you why.”
“But in my place? What would you want?”
“Wanting something doesn’t make it more likely.”
“That wasn’t what I asked, Mr Holmes.”
“Sherlock. That still wasn’t what I asked.”
“You value honesty. You know what you want, but you don’t want a lie. Otherwise you would never have contacted me in the first place. But if you want my honest opinion —”
“Marie, sweetheart, I know we’re in England, but isn’t ten-thirty in the morning a little early to be in a pub? And won’t you introduce me to your friend?”
Sherlock looked up at the tiny, vibrant brunette standing in front of the table. Beside him he could feel Marie quaking. “Kim Ross, I presume,” he said. And smiled.
“You know,” Sarah said, lounging back on the bench outside the station in the sunshine, “someone once sprayed on a bridge near here, ‘Christ is coming.’ And below, someone else added, ‘Only if he remembers to change at Northallerton.’”
John snorted with laughter. “We came up to Catterick Camp on exercises, not long after I’d joined the army. There, painted on a wall, was ‘Catterick Camp. Fighting at hopeless odds since 600 A.D.’”
“Men went to Cattreath — it’s a Welsh poem. Three hundred mad, drunken British bastards fighting an invading army of ten thousand Saxons. Just up the road.”
“But they win, of course.”
“Three hundred against ten thousand? They’re wiped out to the last three men. The poet ran to save his skin.” He looked at Sarah’s stricken face, and made his voice gentler than he’d originally intended. “Heroism doesn’t always mean winning. Getting the story out matters, too.”
His phone rang. He glanced down at the display. “Damn. Harry.”
“Better take it. You’ll only hate yourself if you don’t.”
His thumb flicked the answer button.
“Ah. Dr Watson. How nice to hear from you.”
He gaped at the unexpected sound of Mycroft Holmes’ voice. “If you’re holding my sister hostage, I hope she’s found your wine cellar.”
“My dear Dr Watson. What a low opinion you seem to have of me.”
“I can’t think why. Can you?”
There was a reproving silence on the other end of the line. After a short while, Mycroft said, “Don’t feel you have to worry about your sister.”
“Don’t feel I do. But I’m interested in what you’re doing with her phone.”
“Merely borrowing its caller ID, since you ask. As you’ll find if you check, my brother seems to have barred access to your phone from all my usual numbers. Something of a liberty, wouldn’t you say?”
“We’re flatmates. We split the responsibilities. Pest control is Sherlock’s.”
“Harsh, Dr Watson. Anyway, time is short. You have an event to attend in — somewhere near Richmond, isn’t it?”
“Middleton Tyas,” John said and instantly regretted it. Not that Mycroft wouldn’t have full details of his weekend plans already — probably down to the type of wine he’d bought for Sarah’s parents (which he no doubt had already classified as wrong colour, wrong grape, wrong year and wrong price) — but volunteering information was bad practice. Name, rank and serial number.
“Ah. Yes. With the charming Dr Sawyer. How nice to see romance flourishing in adversity.”
John floundered. “I’m sorry, what?”
“Am I mistaken? I thought sabotaging your romantic prospects was another of the responsibilities my brother had assumed.”
“Again, none of your business.”
“My brother and his antics are very much my business. Which is why I need to know where he is at present.”
“I take it you have tried phoning him? Or — should I guess — he’s barred access to all your numbers on his phone, too?”
“Worse than that, I’m afraid. His phone is quietly residing at 221B Baker Street and has been since eight pm last night. Notwithstanding the flat’s current emptiness. Since I cannot imagine my brother voluntarily being without a mobile phone, he has either acquired a pay-as-you-go model or stolen one from one of the limited number of people who consider him their — acquaintance. Unfortunately, triangulating the signals from those phones places them exactly where one would expect their legitimate owners to be at this time on a Saturday. Including, obviously, you and Dr Sawyer.”
“Tell me, Mycroft, do you run competitions with yourself? Such as ‘Can I commit six breaches of the Human Rights Act before breakfast?’”
“Actually, I never eat breakfast.”
John bit back his automatic comment, more because he knew Sarah would disapprove of body-policing than to spare Mycroft’s feelings. “If Sherlock’s gone to the trouble of buying a new phone just to avoid your calls, then I’d say that made it fairly clear he doesn’t want to talk to you. So, if I did know where he was, I wouldn’t tell you.”
“Your attitude is extremely obstructive. My brother’s refusal to communicate is hindering work of vital national importance.”
“I hate to break the news, Mycroft, but they abolished conscription half a century ago. You can’t make Sherlock take a case for you if he doesn’t want to.”
“I assure you, I can make the alternatives look remarkably unattractive. But, since it appears you can’t assist me, I shall leave you to enjoy your weekend with Dr Sawyer in peace. Unlike Sherlock, no doubt.”
He cut the call before John could respond.
“That didn’t sound good,” Sarah said as John slipped the phone into his pocket.
“It’s not. Sherlock isn’t on a case for Mycroft, and Mycroft couldn’t be more livid.” He bit his lip. “I wish he’d chosen anywhere other than Oxford to go to ground.”
“Why? Afraid Mycroft’s got agents planted in every college who’ll bring Sherlock in at the first opportunity?”
“He might, at that. But Sherlock’s never forgiven himself for allowing Oxford to kick him out. I don’t like the idea of him wandering around there on his own if Mycroft’s been winding him up. Especially since I can’t phone him.”
At that moment, a midnight-blue Range Rover roared into the station car park and screeched to a halt.
“Oh, God, Cressida!” Sarah hissed. “Look, remember. Vaccination’s right out —”
“And no sugar. I know.” John picked up their bags and made his way to the car.
The entire on-line history of Marie Ross’ relationship with the alleged Hadwin Fitzgerald Angel, formerly of the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineering Corps, was contained on the memory stick in Sherlock’s pocket. It did not record, however, the tension the subject provoked between mother and daughter. That was the most interesting thing Sherlock had witnessed since arriving in Oxford.
“So, all the time you were in contact with Captain Angel, he never indicated where he’d served in Afghanistan?”
“Exactly,” Kim Ross said. The unspoken as I mentioned at the time hung in the air.
“Official secrets,” Marie muttered.
An equally well-worn riposte.
“Also, he didn’t talk about his army service. Just hints, sometimes, late at night, when we were on chat.”
“Late at night? Your time or his?” He had the information tabulated on the memory stick, but it would be interesting to see if Marie had picked up on it.
“Usually between ten and midnight, my time.” She looked defensively at Kim and added, “He had insomnia.”
The time-zone issue has been raised before. Rubbed in, more to the point.
“Insomnia’s not uncommon in PTSD sufferers. Did he know Canada at all?”
“He’d done winter warfare training in Northern Alberta. And some technical courses in the Maritimes. Halifax, I think.”
Opposite ends of the country. Also, places which a woman from a small town in Ontario – a woman who’d never flown in her life—would be unlikely to have visited.
An admirably sophisticated twist, that. Overly sophisticated, on one analysis. Marie Ross had clearly been smitten with Captain Angel. Scarcely surprising; the sensitive, troubled, and yet quietly heroic figure who emerged from the mess of chat logs, blog posts, and emails was a man it would have been difficult for anyone to resist, let alone the lonely and introverted Ms Ross.
Nevertheless, Marie Ross, even in love, had had a canny streak. Her own emails, assuming Sherlock had seen them all — he had, almost certainly — had been affectionate but guarded. “Captain Angel” could hardly have guessed how restricted Marie’s horizons had been from anything she had let slip online.
He turned to Kim. “You believed ‘Captain Angel’ to be a hoax from the outset, I understand.”
“As soon as I found out about him, yes.”
“Found out.” Sherlock’s voice was carefully neutral. Accessing a housemate’s computer is not, after all, a crime of which I can claim to be innocent.
“Marie worried me. Her behaviour changed completely. Any mother would have noticed.” Kim’s voice held a note of sweet reasonableness which — for reasons he didn’t care to examine closely — put his nerves on edge.
“An optimistic assumption. I once investigated a case where a daughter carried out four serial killings while living with her parents, neither of whom suspected a thing.”
A half-stifled whimper from Marie chimed with a rare biographical fragment let slip in one of the chat logs.
Yes. That connection would explain a great deal. He turned to her. “You started an undergraduate course at the University of Toronto immediately following high school, but left after less than a year, didn’t you?”
Kim pursed her lips repressively. “She got sick. Big city life didn’t suit her.”
Sherlock kept his attention fixed on Marie. “That wasn’t quite all, was it?” His voice became more thoughtful, as if something had just occurred to him. “Judging by your age, you’d have been there during the ball-peen hammer killings?”
Her eyes were dark pits; her voice sunk to a whisper. “Yes.”
“Know any of the victims?”
“Not – not well.” Her voice became a little stronger. “Not at all, really. It was just –Helena Kirschbaum. She was in one of my classes. I’d given her change for the coffee machine the morning before they – found her. I hadn’t even known her name until I saw her photo in the Globe & Mail. After that – whenever I tried to sleep, I saw her face.”
Helena Kirschbaum. The third victim—according to the Toronto police. Four unsolved cases across Canada evidencing the same m/o. Unusual self-restraint on the killer’s part. Didn’t confine himself to one age group or sex. Didn’t take souvenirs.
Marie was twisting in her seat, her pale face stricken. John had said something, once, about the waves from violent death spreading out further than one could possibly imagine. He’d thought it sentimental nonsense at the time. What hellish luck, her one chance of escaping her mother’s clutches scuppered by a chance brush with a serial killer.
“You seem to know a lot about murderers,” Kim said. Her tone conveyed rather more than her words.
Too much. An unhealthy fascination. Weirdo. Dangerous. The innuendo hardly stung; he’d been dealing with it since he was thirteen. “Consulting detective. Comes with the territory.”
“Consulting detective.” Kim’s voice held a mocking note. “What, with a flat in Piccadilly and a library full of old books?”
“Can’t manage the aristocratic address, I’m afraid. NW1 not W1.”
“But obsessed with serial killers, nevertheless. You can see why a mother worries about the sort of man her daughter encounters on the Internet.”
A nicely judged barb. “As I’m sure you worried about Captain Angel. But, until he disappeared, did he do anything to justify that concern? Did he, for example, ask Marie for money?” He knew the answer, of course, but he wanted to see Kim Ross handle it.
Marie glared at her mother. “You know I never gave him a cent. He never asked.”
“It would only have been a matter of time.”
“A lot of time, evidently. Marie had been corresponding with him for eighteen months when he vanished.”
Kim shrugged. “Who knows what might have happened if I hadn’t intervened?”
“Driven him off, you mean,” Marie said.
Not, Sherlock thought, unjustifiably. He was not given to high-flown literary analogies but the conflict between Kim and Captain Angel, recorded on the memory stick, displayed the stark intensity of a mediaeval mystery play: Satan and Christ battling it out for the soul of Everyman. But which was which, or were they opposite sides of the same coin?
“Tell me about the last week before he vanished.”
Marie spread her hands. “There was something — off. He dropped hints he might be out of communication for a bit — that he might have to go away, but couldn’t give me any details. But he said he would be thinking of me, even if it wasn’t easy to get in touch, and that I mustn’t doubt him, however dark things seemed.”
Sherlock assumed an expression of puzzled concern. “But the only trip he actually gave any details about was his visit to Oxford, the day he vanished.”
“Yes. To attend an alumni dinner at his old college.”
“He used that term?” He slid a sideways glance at Kim Ross, but apart from a tiny flicker at the corner of her mouth her face betrayed nothing.
Marie shook her head. “He called it a Gaudy. He only told me what it meant when I asked. He was emailing me all that last day — the last one I had from him came from the train, about ten to seven.”
“Cutting it fine for an evening dinner, wasn’t he?”
“Yes. The train was late. I remember —”
Her face crumpled; for a moment he feared she was about to cry.
“— I said I bet now he regretted not going for a ready-made bow tie, as he’d have to change in a hurry. But his last email said the train was pulling in at Oxford, and he should just make it if he ran. Then it’s like he simply stepped into thin air. I never heard from him again.”
“Did he say which college?”
“No. But I did a lot of digging. Turns out there were only five colleges having a dinner that night. Here.” She passed him a sheaf of notes.
He flicked through them. “Can’t have been All Souls. Extremely unlikely to have been Wycliffe. Have you been able to find anything out from the others?”
She shook her head. “They wouldn’t talk to me. Privacy laws.”
“Leave that to me.I’ll text you later.” When, hopefully, you will have managed to lose your mother.
He made his escape from the pub, leaving the Rosses, mother and daughter, to resolve their differences as best they might. He suspected it would take some time.
In the past, John had been able to blank out even the sounds of a close-quarters aerial bombardment. Either his powers of concentration had been shot to pieces by civilian life — to the extent that phrase was, in any sense, a valid description of sharing a flat with Sherlock — or someone in the Ministry of Defence ought to consider deploying Cressida Sawyer as an offensive weapon.
“But, Sarah, why hasn’t John done something about his flatmate’s problems before now? I was talking over John’s blog with Nikki at the gym, and both of us agreed this Sherlock man’s in need of help. I’m not sure whether it’s Asperger’s or what — I’m not the medical professional round here — but something should be done.”
John concentrated on gently easing the backbone out of his baked sole. Not going to rise to the bait. Not at all.
“All Sherlock suffers from is a chronic case of not giving a —” Sarah evidently spotted Joshua and Jessica, alert at the end of the table. “Monkey’s,” she concluded. “It’s a personality trait, not a medical condition.”
Cressida leant across the table, almost putting her elbow in the salad bowl. “Conventional medical practitioners! Determined to ignore the psychological component. Did I tell you how many people we had to go to before we managed to have Joshua’s ADHD taken seriously?”
Gavin, Sarah’s father, nudged John in the ribs. “If you wanted a walk after lunch, Smith would appreciate the company.”
Gavin gestured at the family Labrador, curled up on the rug.
“John Smith. After the former Labour leader, you know. But we don’t use the full name. It sounds silly to yell in the park.”
“I suppose it might,” John agreed with bemusement.
Lynne, Sarah’s mother, smiled. “Don’t mind my husband. We were at primary school together, and we all thought he was mental then. I mean, what kind of kid gets a puppy and decides to call it ‘Gaitskill’?”
“He was a red setter,” Gavin said. “Made perfect sense to call him after a left-wing politician. Especially to a ten-year-old. Lovely dog. Had him all the way through school and university. When he died, I couldn’t face having another setter, so I got Butler. Rab Butler.”
John thought he was getting the hang of things. “Conservative politician, so — bulldog?”
“Basset hound, actually. But nice thinking. Anyway, that set a trend.” Gavin looked at John speculatively, as if he’d set a test and thought John might fail it.
John racked his brains. Still, being asked to make linkages between apparently random items was standard Baker Street operating practice.
“Um — John Smith, Rab Butler, Hugh Gaitskill — not just politicians but — aha — could have been Prime Minister and didn’t quite make it?”
Gavin winked across the table at his wife. “Bright chap, this one. You can tell Sarah she can keep him.”
Lynne’s long-suffering expression didn’t quite hide the mischief in her eyes. “Sweetie, getting this family’s idiotic jokes isn’t the be-all and end-all, you know.”
Gavin glanced down the table at Cressida, who had embarked on a denunciation of the incompetence, bigotry, hypocrisy, and deficient personal hygiene of every health-care professional she had encountered in the last decade. Sarah looked as if she was praying for someone to beam her up, anywhere.
“It’s a good start,” he muttered.
“Nevertheless. And you went too far with ‘Powell.’ I had to pretend to my embroidery group we’d named him after the star of Jesus of Nazareth and then couldn’t remember if that was Robert or Richard.”
John tried to stifle a horrified giggle. “You named a dog after Enoch Powell?”
“Blue merle border collie, mad eyes. Uncanny resemblance.” Gavin looked thoughtful. “Had to get rid of him. He was all right with the boys, but a nippy little brute with Sarah. Gave him to a farm in the end. Best thing. You shouldn’t keep border collies as pets. Too intelligent. They get bored and turn destructive on you.”
John avoided meeting Sarah’s eyes.
The conversation drifted on. Then, in a moment of quiet, Jessica’s clear voice piped up. “Sarah, I can be your bridesmaid, can’t I? Mummy promised.”
Gavin and Lynne looked, worryingly, not as shocked as John might have hoped. He took a deep breath. “Actually, I’d love to take Smith for a walk. Is the lead by the door?”
I knew I should have avoided Oxford.
Sherlock’s initial opinion about Captain Angel’s existence had been confirmed by half an hour at the University Admissions Office and a skim of an Army List in Oxford public library. Furthermore, of the five functions held on the evening in question, only one could by any stretch of the imagination be described as a Gaudy dinner. To the extent anything remained open about this case, a ten minute appointment scheduled for later that afternoon would resolve it.
And none of that — none of that — was the point.
“Merton,” Sherlock breathed venomously. “It had to be Merton. And Victor. Both.”
It was almost enough to make one believe in fate or one of those other cosmic deceptions on which the stupid relied to excuse their own idiocy.
I knew I should have avoided Oxford.
Oxford, the spiritual home of split hairs, where people had been earnestly debating the corporeal nature of angels — hah! — for the best part of eight hundred years.
Oxford, where he’d first been brought face to face with how inadequate he was at making or retaining friends.
And with how profoundly one’s family can betray one.
Everything about this case should have told him to answer Marie Ross’ enquiry with a polite claim to be too busy or — at most — with a zip-file setting out what he’d discovered by two hours on the internet and a favour called in from an IT forensics specialist.
Instead he’d tried to use it as a plausible excuse to dodge Mycroft’s knowing insinuations about John and Sarah’s plans. No wonder it had all gone wrong.
If you must confront your enemy on his own ground, always do so intentionally.
He picked up his phone, its unfamiliar shape an annoyance, a further reminder of the lengths to which Mycroft had driven him. All for nothing; fate may be a psychological construct but science affords its own form of predestination.
One is one and all alone and ever more shall be so.
His fingers stabbed at the keypad. PORTER’S LODGE MERTON COLLEGE THREE FORTY-FIVE. MEETING ARRANGED DR VICTOR TREVOR RE GAUDY DINNER. SH
Smith turned out to be a single-minded dog with definite views on the crucial elements of a good walk: a short distance, a gentle pace, and a pub at the end of it. John let him take the initiative and had no quarrel with any of it. He hitched Smith’s lead around the leg of one of the tables outside the Shoulder of Mutton and went inside to acquire a pint for himself and a bowl of water for the dog.
When he returned, he found a tall, grey-haired man tickling Smith’s ears.
“Oh,” the new arrival said, “you aren’t Gavin.”
“No,” John agreed. “John Watson.” He looked down at the dog. “I hope Smith hasn’t been accusing me of kidnapping?”
“The other way round, surely? I sometimes wonder if the landlord bribes him with steak off-cuts to bring custom here. Well, Smith? Anything to confess?”
Smith rolled over onto his back and presented his tummy to be rubbed.
The grey-haired man obliged. “Terrence Duckworth, by the way. Call me Terrence. Is Gavin likely to be along later? I could do with a word.”
John gave it some thought. “Wouldn’t be surprised. Once he’s done the washing up, I suspect he’ll announce a rescue mission, in case we’ve got lost on the moors.”
“Things getting a bit fraught in the run-up to the christening? They often do.”
“You know about the christening?”
“I ought to. I’m officiating.”
“Oh. You’re the vicar.”
“You’re surprised to bump into me in a pub?”
John grinned. “Hardly. Ex-Army. I’ve known too many padres in my time. Speaking of which, what are you drinking?”
A couple of pints of Black Sheep later, Terrence looked John straight in the eye, and said, “Do you want to talk about it, whatever it is?”
Terrence spread his hands in an explanatory gesture. “Bolting off to the pub with the dog within two hours of getting here — fine specimens as both pub and dog are — doesn’t quite suggest everything in the garden is rosy. Also, you’ve been breaking off sentences and staring into space. Repeatedly.”
“Oh. I hadn’t realised it was that obvious.” Though it was oddly homelike to have someone read his mood aloud.
“One gets a good bit of practice in my calling. And, as mentioned, a christening can be a fraught time in a family. Especially if there’s any — ah — dissension as to the purpose of the event. For example, I found myself stuck behind Cressida Sawyer and her daughter at the Shell garage this morning. Jessica didn’t seem to have quite grasped the point of a christening. She demanded there should be bridesmaids. Quite vociferously.”
“That child’s obsessed with bridesmaids,” John muttered.
Terrence eyed him speculatively. “Little girls tend to be, at that age, I’m afraid. I’m inclined to blame Disney. Though I’m not entirely sure Mrs Sawyer was taking the best line to — ah — clear up Jessica’s confusion.”
John’s eyes narrowed. “Oh. Was she by any chance making promises she was in no position to keep?”
“I don’t think I ought to tell. After all, I was an eavesdropper, however involuntarily. Though I have noticed another unfortunate side effect of christenings is the pressure it places on childless women of the family. Relatives can be most extraordinarily intrusive. ‘I hope we’ll be seeing you at the font soon with one of your own’ is one of those comments I overhear all too often. If I could ban it, I would.”
“I think Sarah hoped I’d be a bit of a buffer zone against that sort of stuff.” John realised he was hunching up again. “Though, if anything, it’s made matters worse. Conclusions, leaping to, you know.”
“One only has to keep one’s ears open on the bus to know that worries about whether a man’s wrongly raised a girl’s expectations didn’t die out with Jane Austen.”
“It’s not Sarah. She and I know exactly where we stand.” You hope, John’s conscience interjected nastily.
“Ah. Other people’s assumptions. Tricky. And other people’s feelings. Even trickier. Often, you know, the people asserting loudest that a marriage must be about to happen are the ones who’d be personally devastated if it did.”
Terrence glanced at him sidelong and continued, very carefully, “Take Lynne, for example. Her younger son and his family are about to emigrate to Australia. I doubt she sees Simon’s family more than twice a year. She’d be less than human if she weren’t conflicted about the prospect of Sarah marrying. The bond between a mother and her only daughter can often be very complex, you know.”
He cut off John’s attempted interruption with a gesture. “I’m sure anything Lynne might have said on the topic — and I don’t know she has — would be more to reassure herself that she genuinely would — were it to happen — be gaining a son, not losing a daughter, than to put pressure on either of you to act contrary to your feelings.”
“Lynne’s not the problem,” John said. Before the words were out of his mouth, realisation hit him. But I know exactly what is. At least, I do now. He took a deep swallow from his neglected pint.
The people asserting loudest that a marriage must be about to happen are the ones who’d be personally devastated if it did.
In Sherlock’s terms, going incommunicado — the switch in mobile phones had been aimed just as much at John as at Mycroft — and then taking on a solo investigation in a city he both adored and detested was the equivalent of screaming a message through the PA system at Wembley Stadium.
“Oh, you idiot,” he muttered, and could not have said whether he meant Sherlock or himself.
Mycroft, of course, would have guessed from the start what was going on. Hell, he’d have leapt at the chance to exploit his brother’s insecurities, in the hope of gaining some tactical advantage in the endless Cold War between them. John’s going to see his girl-friend’s parents this weekend? When is the marriage to be announced? He hasn’t told you? Oh. I see.
Really, the man was a human shark, without a shark’s excuses. No: that wasn’t wholly fair. But John wished for God’s sake Mycroft could, for once, drop the attitude of being the bossy mother of a delinquent three-year-old in his dealings with his brother.
If, for no other reason, to deprive Sherlock of an excuse for behaving like a delinquent three-year-old.
Though at least, having identified the problem, John could set about solving it. Provided, of course, he could manage to find Sherlock before he killed himself or anyone else — with the exception of Mycroft, who obviously deserved it.
At which moment, Sarah, looking hot and sweaty as if she’d run all the way from the house, arrived beside them.
“John,” she said breathlessly, “you cannot imagine how sorry I am. I could seriously kill Cressida. Given that to hear her talk those kids are the combination of Einstein and the Dalai Lama, you’d think she might at least assume they’re capable of absorbing something of what’s said in their vicinity. Look, given who you hang out with, surely you must have acquired some useful tips for the best way to do someone in and hide the body?”
“Sarah,” John said, “have you met Terrence? No? He’s the vicar. Terrence, this is Sarah, my girlfriend. She’ll be renouncing the world, the flesh, and the devil on her nephew’s behalf tomorrow. There are just these homicidal impulses we need to straighten out first.”
“Victor, why make such a fuss?” If it hadn’t been for Marie Ross, Sherlock would have swept out of the room in exasperation. “I’m only asking if someone attended the Merton Gaudy, not where best to plant a bomb in the Bodleian Library.”
“Oh, I’m sure you’ve already worked that out for yourself.”
Victor gave a high, nervous laugh.
Why nervous? What does he think I can do to him? I was powerless fifteen years ago. What does he suppose has changed?
“Look, Sherlock, you can’t go round behaving as if rules don’t exist. At least, maybe you can, but I can’t afford to. These days the Data Protection Act is the be-all and end-all.”
Sherlock leaned menacingly across Victor’s desk. It was laden with architects’ plans, builders’ estimates, bills of quantities, supporting papers, and committee minutes: the tools of a man whose power rested on knowing who had paid what to whom and from which bank account.
In short, the desk of a highly accomplished backroom weasel.
“Victor, if you don’t produce the — very simple — information I’m asking for, Ms. Ross and I are going to walk straight out of here and report Captain Angel to Thames Valley Police as a missing person. The Data Protection Act won’t permit you to obstruct a criminal investigation.”
Despite the hollowness of the threat, a sheen of sweat covered Victor’s forehead.
Sherlock felt his pulse quickening. Before I entered this room, I had this case sewn up. All I needed was to convince Marie Ross. Now — who knows? “Well?”
Victor coughed. “Trust me, Sherlock, I’d love to help. But I didn’t send out those invitations. The Development Office was responsible. I’ll have to check with someone there.”
Sherlock gestured toward the door. “Take as long as you like. We’re in no hurry.”
Victor paused, nodded, and left. Instantly, Sherlock was behind his desk, tapping at the computer keyboard.
Marie gasped. “Sherlock, you can’t.”
The screen, annoyingly, had gone into lock-down mode. His first attempts at the password failed. Whoever was running college IT must have instituted proper security protocols. In which case…
He yanked open the second drawer of the desk and barely restrained a yelp of glee. A Post-It note bearing the scribbled sequence l3z_3nf&NTz_dU_p&r&D1zL945 was stuck to the cover of a black leather desk diary.
Marie leaned over his shoulder. “What the hell’s that?”
“A ‘strong’ computer password dreamt up by a man with an obsession with French film and an almost non-existent visual memory. Thank God for IT security. People always hide their uncrackable, impossible-to-remember passwords in the second drawer down. Now, let’s hope no-one interrupts us for a few minutes.”
A futile hope: there were footsteps on the staircase even now. Not Victor. Clinking china, careful placing of feet. Someone carrying a tray. By the time the college servant entered, Sherlock and Marie were by the window, innocently looking out at the Fellows’ Quad. It was shrouded in scaffolding, evidence of major restoration in progress.
“Dr Trevor’s apologies, sir, but he’s been detained by the Dean. So he asked me to offer you tea and biscuits while—fucking hell, Sherlock! It’s you.”
Sherlock crossed the room in two strides. “Brendan! My God, how did you end up in this mouldering old dump?”
“The food’s good,” Brendan said defensively. He looked down at the tea-tray. “Though, if I’d known it was you, I’d have raided the Bursar’s private biscuits.”
“Wouldn’t have been worth it. Not eating. On a case. Look, Brendan, can you remember the Gaudy dinner?”
“Can I remember? Jesus, they were practically cavity searching us before we were allowed to set the tables. Sniffer dogs, bomb detector squads, the lot. Never known security like it. And it was only for the bleeding Foreign Secretary. The head porter said they never used to make this much fuss when the Japanese Crown Prince was in college.”
“Any idea why?”
Brendan shook his head. “But I’ll tell you who’d know. Your brother. I’m surprised you haven’t asked him.”
“Mycroft was at the dinner?” Sherlock’s fingers clutched, convulsively, at the memory stick in his pocket. He’d detected the hoax and the hoax behind the hoax, but were they all — Kim Ross, Marie, and Sherlock himself — puppets in a larger scheme?
“Once seen, never forgotten, your brother, know what I mean? I was waiting on High Table that night. He was one of the VIPs. Someone slipped him a message, and he excused himself to make a phone call. Must have been a long one, unless he was trying to dodge the after-dinner speeches. He didn’t get back until they were filing into the Senior Common Room. But he didn’t stay for port. The Foreign Secretary had to dash back to London, and your brother scrounged a lift in his chopper. Seriously, Sherlock, anything you need to know about that dinner, ask your brother. But don’t drag me in. I like it here, and I don’t want to have to move again.” With that, Brendan ducked out.
“Who was that guy?” Marie demanded.
“Wasn’t it obvious? We used to work together. At the Savoy Hotel. I was a waiter.”
“You were undercover?”
“No, I was broke. The rest was happenstance.”
“An awards dinner, a movie star, some borrowed Bulgari jewellery, quite a quantity of cocaine, and a dead tabloid reporter.”
“And what did Brendan have to do with that?”
“A great deal less than the police were inclined to think at the time. As I was able to prove. But forget that. What the hell would Mycroft have been doing at Merton Gaudy dinner?”
“Did he not study here, then?”
“Of course he did. Scholarship. First in PPE. University essay prize. Union librarian. Fast stream entrance to the Civil Service. Model Oxford career.” Sherlock drew a deep breath. “The issue isn’t whether he was invited to the Merton Gaudy. It’s that he came. Because, whatever I’ve accused my brother of in the past, dewy-eyed nostalgia for his college days isn’t included.”
“Maybe he came to meet someone?” A fugitive hope shone in her eyes.
He cursed, inwardly. Just when I’d hoped to lay the ghost of Captain Angel permanently to rest, Mycroft’s political nonsense had to intervene. “Let’s see who he could have met. Here. Put these on.” He pulled a pair of latex gloves from his pocket; she took them wide-eyed, but donned them without protest. “Good. Now type in Victor’s password.”
He moved to allow her access to the computer.
“You don’t type?”
“Of course I do. But there’s a better than even chance someone’s installed a Government-issue keystroke logger on this machine. GCHQ has my keyboard signature on file. It’s vanishingly unlikely they’ll have yours. Do exactly what I tell you.”
Once they’d cracked Victor’s over-complicated file structure, his computer yielded pure gold. Despite his earlier claims, he’d kept himself fully informed of invites and acceptances, doubtless planning his schmoozing well in advance.
Half way down the list of Gaudy attendees everything fell into place with the calm inevitability of a mathematical proof: Mycroft’s peculiarly prolonged phone call, Victor’s nervousness at Sherlock’s reappearance, the heightened security at the Gaudy dinner, the Foreign Secretary — even the scaffolding outside.
A quick sift through the paperwork on the desk confirmed his conclusions.
“Gazprom,” Sherlock muttered. “Gazprom.”
“You’ll find out soon.” He passed Marie the memory stick. “Anything you want to save, do it now. We have less than five minutes.”
“Listen.” He gestured toward the open window. Growing louder by the second came the whirr of rotor blades and the growl of engines, a sound he’d been subconsciously expecting ever since Brendan had passed on Victor’s transparent excuse. “It’ll land in Merton Field. Not even Mycroft could get away with parking a helicopter on the lawn in the Fellows Garden.”
“Hello? Hello? ight, then, Anthea or Angelique or Arsinöe or whatever you’re calling yourself this week, I do not give a shit that your boss is busy, except to pity the poor buggers whose lives he is no doubt busy screwing up. Just pass on this message. Tell Mycroft I know he’ll have managed to track Sherlock down by now, even if he’s had to spend the entire UK Budget to pay for the search. So, when they talk, can he tell Sherlock I need to contact him, urgently? And Mycroft can also tell Sherlock that everything he’s been coming out with about what Sarah and I have been planning is a gigantic pile of self-serving cack. He isn’t to believe a word on the topic that doesn’t come direct from one of us. Got that?
“Oh, fuck. Why doesn’t voicemail give you time to leave a proper message? I hadn’t even got to the bit about where he can stick his umbrella.”
“You didn’t attend the Gaudy just to stuff yourself with indifferent food and reminisce about your acne-ridden youth, did you? There’s a bidding war on for oil concessions in the former Soviet Union. One of your fellow attendees is a high-powered timber trader. He travels to Siberia practically every other week and knows everyone there who matters. You’ve used him as a go-between before.”
Sherlock paced across the room, noting as he did so Victor’s retreat behind his desk, to the position from which, no doubt, he was accustomed to cowing delinquent undergraduates. Marie, falling likewise into the professor/student scenario, had perched herself on a hard, upright chair by the window, where she sat, chewing on her thumb-nail.
“Before you commit further indiscretions, what about her?” Mycroft gestured at Marie. “It may amuse you to play-act your way into Victor’s office with some preposterous story about a missing man, but I’ve got national security to consider. She’s not cleared.”
“Whatever you choose to believe, Ms Ross is my client. She has a right to be here. Anything you wish to say, you say in front of her.”
Mycroft sighed. “I do hope you can impress on her how…unsafe…it would be to reveal anything of this outside these walls.”
“She won’t talk.”
“Who’d believe her if she did? Proceed.”
“During the dinner, you were informed there’d been an attempt to obtain confidential information — presumably about the UK Government’s bottom line — from the Foreign Secretary’s red boxes, which he’d left in his room. Only a Fellow of the College could have had access to the room. Only someone privy to the up-to-date list of attendees could have guessed what was likely to be there.”
Victor’s face was chalk-pale; a tic flickered in the corner of his mouth.
Sherlock pressed mercilessly on.
“So far as you could tell, the attempt had failed. Nevertheless, the discussions were aborted, and the Foreign Secretary returned to London. As it had been you who’d proposed the Merton Gaudy as the venue, you were under something of an official cloud. I wish I’d been a fly on the wall when you reported back.”
“I have systems to eliminate flies. Their buzzing annoys me.” Mycroft blinked, and then added, “Nonetheless, some support from my only brother in a moment of professional difficulty would have been appreciated. Blood, as they say, is thicker than water.”
“Being more active than you, I see my crime scenes fresh. That cliché is both factually accurate and not a recommendation.” Sherlock reached inside his jacket for the sheets of paper he had removed from the piles on Victor’s desk.
“The drop-box is one of the three gargoyles on the chapel roof which were replaced during the current restoration. It’s got a hidden compartment. Access via the scaffolding. Pickup arranged through the building contractors, cycled through as casual labour, ostensibly Polish. Number codes, in emails querying the estimates, to alert when a drop’s been made.”
“I always thought builders’ estimates had something of the night about them. When we’ve time, I’ll tell you the latest twist in my extension saga.” Mycroft’s hand rested casually in a pocket. “I take it you can prove who’s responsible?”
“Of course. You know, Victor, if you’d given me what I asked for, Marie and I would have been out of here in five minutes, and I’d never have thought of delving into your grubby attempts at espionage.”
“Me? Sherlock, you’re off your head. Why would I access classified information?” To Sherlock’s experienced ears Victor’s denials sounded shrill, unconvincing, the last feeble protests of a man who knew himself cornered without escape.
“Stop pretending.” Sherlock felt no trace of the triumph he’d anticipated on the many times he’d rehearsed this scene over the years. “You’ve always been for sale. The first time you were bought was Hilary term of my second year. My last term in Oxford, as you may recall.”
Victor gulped, casting a desperate glance at Mycroft, who stood, arms lightly crossed over his chest, a faint, supercilious smile on his face.
See how much help he gives you now.
“How much choice do you think I had? You’ve no conception what he could have done with the information he had.” Victor’s voice was high, almost accusing.
“There was something other than your father’s Ponzi schemes?” He saw Victor’s expression shift and cursed, internally. Always something. “You never realised I knew? I tried dropping hints to your father when I stayed with you in the vac. I hoped he might fold the schemes while he was ahead. He wouldn’t listen, but there seemed no point in telling you I knew your family was living on borrowed time.”
“How touching,” Mycroft said. “My little brother deciding to hold his tongue to spare your feelings. You should feel very special, Victor. I don’t suppose it’s ever happened since. He does love to pronounce his opinions so very, very much. Oh, sorry, I forgot. There was this one time, in North London — but I suppose we’d better not go into that. Not very lucky in your ‘friends,’ are you, Sherlock?”
He resisted the temptation to tell Mycroft to leave John out of it. His brother smirked just as if he’d spoken. Over by the window, Marie Ross pressed herself into the radiator, as though trying to make herself invisible.
Victor’s gaze flickered from one brother to the other. “I never expected them to kick you out,” he blurted. “You — the things you were doing — you needed help. Mycroft promised me he’d help you.”
“And I would have done.” Mycroft’s voice sounded utterly reasonable. “A few words in the right places — a token few weeks suspension from college — a meaningless course of addictions therapy with a tame consultant I’d already lined up — No, Sherlock. Don’t deceive yourself. The decision to destroy your Oxford career was yours, and yours alone.”
For a moment, Sherlock felt light as air. Not as omniscient as you thought you were, brother mine. He made his voice very patient. “Yes. It was the only choice you left me that was mine. Now do you understand?”
He caught a flicker of something uncertain in Mycroft’s eyes.
“Anyway, you bought Victor. And paved the way for his academic success. After all, I’m sure a Fellow of Merton College, Oxford is far more use in your particular line than, say, a junior lecturer at Liverpool John Moores.”
“I won my Fellowship on my own merits,” Victor protested.
Sherlock and Mycroft favoured him with a pitying glance before their attention focussed on each other again.
“It’s useful, having a man in situ,” Mycroft said. “One doesn’t like to waste time and taxpayers’ money interviewing promising students for special Governmental duties and then finding they’re unsuitable. A confidential report from a Fellow of their college allows one to avoid blind alleys.”
“To say nothing of students with political ambitions. Always valuable to have a few youthful indiscretions squirreled away against the day someone shows up as your ministerial paymaster. I understand your position entirely. The problem was, I don’t think you understood Victor’s. When the crash came —”
“I did nothing,” Mycroft said.
“That was all you needed to do. Trevor and Associates collapsed in a blizzard of publicity, and his father shot himself. Overnight, Victor stopped being a rich kid with the prospect of a very large inheritance and became a comparative pauper with only his academic salary to live on. Having been bought once, he decided to put himself on the market once more. God knows how long ago that was. I doubt anyone starts a career in espionage with Cabinet secrets. But whatever he turns out to have revealed, I’m sure you’ll wriggle out of any blame with your usual finesse.”
“Especially now you’ve chosen — after all — to assist me.”
Sherlock snorted with exasperation. “You two still haven’t got the point, have you? I repeat, Marie and I came here for one purpose only. To enquire into the whereabouts of Captain Angel.”
“No such person attended the dinner,” Victor said, tight-lipped. “No such person was invited to the dinner.”
Sherlock smiled. “You see how easy it is? That was exactly the question I asked you,” he looked at his watch, “not quite an hour and a quarter ago. At which point you made an excuse to leave the room and telephoned my brother. Of course, if Captain Angel had not been at the dinner, saying so could hardly breach his privacy rights.”
“Even if he’d existed,” Mycroft said.
Sherlock raised his eyebrows. “Even if? You have a view to express on the point?”
“Don’t be absurd, Sherlock. I had twenty minutes to spare during the flight from London. Given the resources I can access, I had conclusive proof inside a quarter of an hour that Captain Angel never existed.”
“Hence the ease with which he disappeared.” Sherlock turned to Marie Ross. “I’m sorry.”
Both Victor and Mycroft looked at him as if he had suddenly developed two heads.
Marie got to her feet. “Could we finish this somewhere else? I could really use a beer.”
“Certainly. Even your mother could hardly complain about our going to the pub at this time in the afternoon. Sorry, Mycroft. I’ll have to leave you to wrap up the Official Secrets complications for yourself.”
They reached the street without hindrance.
Marie turned to him. “I’m not going to cry or throw things, if that’s worrying you.”
“It’s not. First, I know you aren’t. I’ve seen enough wronged women to tell. Second, even if you did, no-one would notice. In term-time, Oxford is crammed with ten thousand highly strung students going through every form of emotional crisis known to man. It’d probably take nudity, live animals, and the creative use of a Sousaphone even to raise an eyebrow round here.”
“And yet you succeeded in having them expel you. How?”
“It was a long time ago. I don’t really remember.”
She looked at him, scepticism naked on her face.
After a pause he added, “Despite what my brother somewhat unsubtly hinted back there, the chemical substance to which my college took real exception was the nitroglycerin. Now, about this beer.”
She looked up and down the High. “Is there a pub round here which no-one except locals can find?” Her expression told him more, perhaps, than she’d intended.
“You’re avoiding your mother.”
“What can I possibly say to her? After what she’s done?”
“When did you work out she was behind the Captain Angel hoax?”
“Ten minutes ago. But I’ve known all day it was a hoax. When Kim interrupted us in the pub this morning, you were about to tell me he was too good to be true.”
Something twisted inside him. One is one and all alone and ever more shall be so. “No. I was going to tell you he didn’t exist, not that a man like him couldn’t have existed.”
Her eyes widened. Then she nodded, slowly. “Still, I’ve been waiting hours for the other shoe to drop. Though, for a few minutes, back there —”
“You hoped Captain Angel was the cover identity of someone in covert ops, which might explain the lack of a paper trail?”
“Not especially. After all, in one sense, Captain Angel was instrumental in stopping a major breach of national security. Not bad for a fictional character. So. Why did you realise your mother was responsible?”
“I saw your brother’s face when you told him why you didn’t fight being kicked out of school. It reminded me of when I showed Kim my passport and my ticket. She looked exactly like that.”
He thought of Mycroft’s expression — uncertainty, yes, but there had been a hint of baffled anger there, too. “She realised she hadn’t covered all the angles, after all.”
Marie nodded. “That’s what I worked out. Then, I only thought she was annoyed about what I’d spent.”
“Yes. Your mother’s inconsistent attitude to the costs of pursuing Captain Angel was one of her biggest mistakes. Ordinarily, she’s exceedingly careful with money, perhaps even a little obsessive. Her bag strap, for example, shows wear at two distinct places. Bought on eBay. Originally carried by a much taller woman.”
“My father left when I was a baby. It made her insecure.”
Not just about finance. Sherlock had identified Kim Ross as the culprit five days ago. Seeing her, though — he had not expected that sense of fellow-feeling, his bone-deep understanding of the woman’s desperation at the prospect of losing the one person on whose presence she depended absolutely. I would have invented a Captain Angel without an atom of regret if I’d thought it might have kept John in Baker Street.
Marie turned to face him. “What’s bugging you? Is it your brother?”
“I —” He came to a halt. “Why do you say that?”
She glared. “Both of you might have been treating me like a piece of furniture back there, but I do have ears. What was that snide remark he made about you being unlucky in your friends? Let me guess. He’s been stirring up trouble between you and someone who matters a lot to you.”
Sherlock bit his lip. “However objectionable his approach, he did have a point. He reminded me that my record either at making or keeping friends was hardly stellar. And that marriage is frequently used as an opportunity to drop friendships which may have become… outworn.”
“And you just accepted it?” Marie said. “Has your friend told you he’s planning on getting married?”
“The evidence suggests he’s about to announce it.”
“I’m not talking about evidence. I’m talking about your brother. If that guy told me it was raining, I’d go straight to the window. And, in this case, I’d go straight to my friend and ask him. Face to face.”
“He’s two hundred miles away. Visiting his girlfriend’s family in Yorkshire.”
“And? That’s only a four hour drive.”
“I’ve not got a car. I came by train.”
Marie grinned. “But I’ve got a rental car parked up the road, and nothing to stay for in Oxford. My laptop and passport are in my bag, and I can buy anything else I need on the way.”
He paused. He knew the conventional things he ought to say: It’s far too far, I couldn’t possibly allow you to go to the trouble, just drop me at the station, I’ll be fine, it’s you who needs looking after, not me, you need to sort out your problems with your mother, running away never solves anything.
“In that case, what are we waiting for?”
As they swung through Summertown on their way to the M40, he found he was humming.
She looked across at him, bright-eyed. “We used to do that one at Girl Guide camps. How’s it go again? I’ll sing you one, o.”
“The peace of the Lord be always with you,” the vicar intoned.
“And also with you,” the congregation responded obediently.
“Let us offer one another a sign of peace.”
John exchanged a firm, business-like handshake with Gavin, stretched across to peck Lynne on the cheek, gave Sarah a quick hug — she’d seemed unexpectedly overwhelmed by standing at the font making promises on behalf of infant Neil — dodged Cressida’s frantic “mwah-mwah” air-kissing, shook her hand, and swung round to the pew behind him.
Sherlock was standing there.
“Oh, thank God.”
The only word for Sherlock’s expression was incandescent. John almost expected the solid oak pew to blaze up in glory. He reached out and gripped Sherlock’s arm, hard. “Talk later, OK?”
Sherlock nodded and turned to shake hands, urbanely, with the white-haired woman on his far side.
John supposed he must have made the right responses in the right places — certainly no-one nudged him — but he had no recollection of the rest of the service until they were filing out into the sunlit churchyard, a triumphant organ blaring, Sherlock pacing beside him and the vicar waiting to greet the departing congregation.
Terrence’s face lit up as they reached him.
“Sherlock, what a pleasure to see you. Though I do hope your appearance isn’t going to herald stolen Communion vessels and ritual murder in the belfry?Again.”
“You two must go back a long way,” John said.
Terrence smiled. “In my first parish. I came by these grey hairs honestly. Well?”
“Not a case. I needed an urgent word with John, and Marie — Ms Ross, here — very kindly agreed to give me a lift up from Oxford. She’s over from Canada.”
“Oh, that is good.” Terrence beamed. “I do hope you’ll be able to spend a little time in this part of the world, Ms Ross. I always think it’s a terrible shame when people shoot straight from York to Edinburgh, and by-pass North Yorkshire altogether.”
“We stayed in York last night. I’d have liked to see more of it, but I couldn’t keep my eyes open. Jet lag. That’s why we didn’t get here until this morning. But I’ve no fixed plans. I’m on vacation. I’d love to stick around the neighbourhood for a bit.”
“Splendid! There’s a lot to interest a visitor: ruined abbeys and Roman ruins and some splendid walks. Such a pity they took the Rivals Font away to Newcastle, or I could have shown you that.”
“The Rivals Font?” Marie enquired.
“Oh, I’m sorry. We found a tenth-century font bricked up in an alcove when we were doing some restoration work. I don’t suppose it made international headlines, but the archaeologists over here got very excited about it.” Terrence waved his hand with enthusiasm. “Particularly because it showed traces of both Viking and Irish influences. Nordic runes round the basin and a trefoil base, like a shamrock in cross-section.
Three in one. Hence the name.”
“To us, ‘rivals’ implies conflict, but to a mediaeval mind it simply meant ‘co-equals.’ That is, each element necessary and none dominant. Sherlock, I hate to mention this, but there appears to be a police car parked on the other side of the lych-gate. Are you quite sure it’s got nothing to do with you?”
“If it has, then it won’t be anything worse than taking and driving away, plus abduction, at a guess.” He glanced at Marie Ross and, with just a shade too much nonchalance, added, “I texted your mother from York, to say we were heading North on the trail of a former Army officer. I suppose it’s possible she took it the wrong way.”
“Kim actually had the nerve — ” Marie looked furious. “Well, that does it. I’m going over there to tell those cops exactly what kind of screwball they’re dealing with.”
“I’ll come with you,” Sarah said. “I’ve had practice at untangling Sherlock-related complications.”
“I suppose we ought — ” John began to move forward, but Sherlock caught his arm, pulling him back.
“Definitely no,” Sarah agreed. “From a distance, they won’t have any difficulty believing that Marie went off with you on a spur-of-the moment trip while in her right mind and without any compulsion whatsoever. Open your mouth, and doubts might creep in.”
John half-expected Sherlock to take that badly, but he simply waved them off in the direction of the police car and retreated to sit on a flat-topped tomb.
John joined him there. “So Mycroft passed on my message?”
“Typical. What a tosser.” He paused. “But you came anyway.”
“Had to.” Sherlock hesitated. “You aren’t, I take it, about to marry Sarah and move to a rural practice somewhere in Sussex or Kent?”
“Are you completely mad? Actually, on second thoughts, don’t answer that. No. Of course not. And if I had any plans of that sort, I’d discuss them with you first. Idiot.”
That seemed to get through; the last trace of tension vanished from Sherlock’s body. He sprawled, lizard-like, on the tomb-top, drinking in the sun. John allowed his eye-lids to droop. He was recalled by a shadow falling across him and looked up to see Gavin surveying them both. He addressed himself to Sherlock first.
“I hope we’ll be seeing you later, up at the house. We’re having a barbecue.”
“I hadn’t intended —” Sherlock began.
“Lynne will undoubtedly have judged quantities by starting out to feed the five thousand and then assuming they’ve each brought a friend.” Gavin looked beadily at him. “Also, Cressida isn’t the only one who’s read John’s blog. From what I can gather, if Sarah’s going to stick around John, the two of you come as a set. And I can’t afford to let John go. He’s the only one Sarah’s brought home who’s really got on with the dog.”
Sherlock had a most peculiar expression on his face. After a moment’s pause he said, “You do realise that logic implies you’re more concerned about your dog’s happiness than your daughter’s?”
Gavin shrugged. “What do you expect? I’m English. Anyway, see you later.”
He raised his hand in a half-wave, and ambled off toward the lych-gate.
“Well.” John shook his head in a vague hope it might help clear his brain. “I’m not sure if that’s a rather sophisticated take on the usual assumption or what.”
“Does it bother you?”
“Why should it? The only thing that bothers me is you letting Mycroft get to you. Again. You know what he is, after all.”
“He’s my brother. After all.”
“Oh, well. God gives us our relatives. Thank heavens we can choose our friends.” John’s face creased, unstoppably, in a smile.
The sun was shining, no-one was shooting at them, and Sherlock had at last managed to dig himself out of his crisis of nerves. Better still, he, Sarah, and Sherlock would be out of here on the six-o-clock train and unlikely to see any of these people again before Christmas at the earliest. In the circumstances, surely there could be no harm — no possible harm — in introducing Cressida Sawyer to Sherlock and inviting her to share with him her views on vaccination.