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Chapter 2 - The Affair of the Asphyxiated Acafan by A.J. Hall

“Natural death?”

“That’s what I said. So I’ll push off back to my already over-burdened inbox and would be very grateful if you could stop trying to clutter it up with your hunches about perfectly natural deaths.”

From where Sarah had paused on hearing the Scotland Yard man’s voice she could see John’s disappointed slump, Sherlock’s attitude of arrogant disbelief. None of the men acknowledged her presence, though no doubt Sherlock – at least - had heard the key in the lock and her footstep on the stairs, and drawn his own conclusions. It was, as much as anything, to get a word in first that she made her voice welcoming, even hearty.

“Inspector Lestrade! I hope John passed on the message. Can you make it to our party on Saturday? You and your team; I’m really looking forward to catching up with Sally.”

Lestrade gave a convulsive, horrified head jerk in the direction of the kitchen. Sarah could only sympathise; she had experienced her own Alfredo Garcia moment with the Baker Street fridge a couple of weeks ago while on a futile hunt for milk.

“It’s at my place,” she continued. “There’s less chance of – that, is, I’ve got much better cooking facilities over there. And it won’t put Mrs Hudson out.”

“Oh, don’t worry about me, dear.” John’s landlady popped her head round the kitchen door and beamed at her. “I like a good knees up. But you’re right; much better to have it at your place. After all, no-one could call Sherlock a party animal, could they, dear? Just like my Raymond, really.”

Lestrade gulped, looking for a moment positively goldfish-like. “Hang on; your – um – late husband was Raymond Hudson? As in Ray the Sting? The Teflon Eel?”

Mrs Hudson pursed her lips. “He never cared for the newspapers using those silly names, you know. Used to get quite impassioned about it; well, he was a very passionate man, of course. He used to say, all the money they spend on editors and they can’t find one decent marine biologist.”

“Or science of materials specialist either, evidently,” Sherlock observed.

The Inspector gritted his teeth audibly. “Whatever. As I said. Natural death. So drop it.”

As Lestrade brushed past Sarah on his way out she was fascinated to note he was mumbling, over and over, “Ray the Sting! Ray the bleeding Sting!” Her respect for Mrs Hudson went up another two notches.

“Don’t forget, Inspector,” she called down the stairs after him, “Saturday. Any time after eight-thirty. I’ll get John to email you the address.”

She dropped onto the sofa next to John. “I take it I’d made a mistake about Professor Farintosh? So, what did she die of?”

“Ondine’s curse,” John said.

“Rather a pretty name, for a fatal disease, I thought,” Mrs Hudson burbled cheerfully. “Named after a water fairy. Margot Fonteyn danced her in the ballet – Mum took me, for my sixth birthday. Anyway, I must be going. Sorry you’ve been disappointed, dear, but chin up. You never know what’s round the next corner.” She collected a couple of empty mugs and vanished downstairs.

Sherlock had his laptop on his knee. “John tells me little more than I had already gleaned from Wikipedia. A rare and extreme form of sleep apnea, where the reflex that should remind the sleeper to continue breathing shuts down, with disastrous effects. Can you add anything?”

A memory, like a buzzing fly, fretted away at the edge of Sarah’s mind but, frustratingly, refused to settle long enough for her to pin it down. Instead, she said, “Well, for what it’s worth Professor Farintosh probably did have obstructive sleep apnea; at least, she snored to Olympic standards. Her room-mate Heather spent most of breakfast on the Sunday of the convention bending my ear about it. I think she was trying to enlist my support to help her swap room-mates again, though the Concom had enough trouble finding somewhere to put her the first time, after that spectacular blow up with Caroline. They’d have been completely stuffed if Professor Farintosh hadn’t agreed to share. So I told Heather to grin and bear it and, if she got desperate, buy earplugs.”

Sherlock’s frame had the coiled, focussed intensity of a watching heron which had just seen the faint stir of an eel amid the water-weeds. “Tell me about Heather and Caroline’s falling out.”

John stirred among the sofa cushions. “Oh, surely, we’ve all been there? Rugby tours – conferences – promotion boards. Two people stuck in one room – probably didn’t even know each other beforehand – one plays loud music when the other wants to sleep – or comes in roaring drunk with bunch of mates and insists on starting a poker school at one in the morning – or starts singing the Red Flag when he knows the other guy’s a Young Conservative; you can’t tell me there’s anything novel about a room-share going pear-shaped.”

“Actually,” Sarah said, picking her words with precision, “both Caroline and Heather were teetotal, vegetarian, early risers and environmental activists. Unfortunately, every time they happened to be alone in their room, Caroline took out her orthodontic brace and hurled it at Heather’s head.”

John absorbed this silently, in his adorable, utterly John way, as though he was a rock against which the waves of human eccentricity could break forever and leave him puzzled but essentially unshakeable. She wanted to throw her arms round him and cling on, as to a sole fixed point in a chaotic universe.

“Did she mention why?” Sherlock’s voice was uninflected, but as she looked up to meet his eyes she thought she traced a fugitive flicker of recognition; even, perhaps, a hint of camaraderie.

“Social anxiety disorder.”

“I see.” Which, in Sherlock’s mouth, probably meant more rather than less. Not that he seemed prepared to pursue the issue further. John, meanwhile, struggled up to his feet, using the sofa arm to balance and reached for his stick.

“We’d better be off. Quiz starts at quarter to. Sure you don’t want to come along?”

“For a pub quiz?” From the way Sherlock looked down his elegant nose, one might have thought John had invited him to join them for a little light hustling beneath the railway arches of Waterloo. “A evening surrounded by intellectual pygmies, striving to discover who has decorated their mental living rooms with the most tawdry and irrelevant trinkets?”

“I’ll take that as a ‘no’ then. I’ll text you to let you know what I’m doing later. And try not to do anything stupid while we’re out. Some deaths just are natural. Doesn’t mean the world’s murder reserves are running out.”

“And in which 1980’s movie did this Oscar-winning song feature? Bonus points if you can name both leading actors.”

The strains of Up Where We Belong – horribly distorted by the quizmaster’s cheap stereo system – started to drift across the upstairs room of the pub. Most of the quiz teams bent their heads over their papers and started scribbling.

Sarah reached for her handbag and was on her feet shrugging into her coat almost before she knew it. “Come on,” she hissed at John.

“Come on? But we’re in fourth place, with three rounds to go!”

“Yes, and Professor Farintosh was murdered. And we always fluff music rounds, anyway.”

Once on the pub’s landing she turned to him. “Debra Winger. That’s the answer.”

“Yes, I know. With Richard Gere. That’s three points we could have had –”

“Oh, what does it matter? Everyone else would have got them too. Anyway, that isn’t the point. Debra Winger wasn’t just the star of An Officer and a Gentleman. She co-starred with Teresa Russell in Black Widow, too.”

“And? I’ve never seen it.”

A new voice broke in from behind them. “Congratulations. There are times when you manage to surprise me completely.”

They turned. Sherlock was ascending the pub’s grand Victorian staircase, his coat flapping behind him like a superhero’s cape. “You weren’t responding to my texts. Either of you,” he added, as he reached the top step.

“Yes,” John said. “I believe I’ve explained to you what the quiz-master did to the last person who opted to phone a friend in one of his quizzes. You don’t want to piss off a man who might take it into his head to interpret ‘Let your fingers do the walking’ literally.”

“Well, come on, both of you. No time to waste.”

Sherlock, in a typically extravagant gesture, had kept his cab waiting. John, sitting between them on the back seat, stirred to speak as soon as they started moving, but Sherlock gestured, eloquently, towards the back of the cabbie’s head. John nodded; a quick, understanding nod which spoke volumes about something Sarah could only guess at, and relapsed into silence until they had entered 221B Baker Street.

Sarah flopped onto the sofa, John beside her. Sherlock’s laptop was already fired up and on the table. He dropped into his chair in front of it and tapped a couple of keys, and then turned to Sarah.

“So,” he said, “Black Widow. Elucidate, for John’s benefit.”

“Ondine’s curse,” Sarah said. “It was the McGuffin. Debra Winger was a cop, and she started following up reports of rich men who’d died of it, all across America, leaving young widows. The same young widow. Played by Teresa Russell.”

Sherlock nodded; his long, elegant fingers traced a dreamy pattern in the air in front of his computer screen. “Quite so. And the connection to Professor Farintosh?”

“Her presentation at the con. I didn’t go – it was scheduled opposite a panel I was on – but when they started playing that song I remembered she’d planned to talk about Black Widow.”

John stirred beside her. “Hang on; you mean the last lecture Professor Farintosh ever gave was about the very disease she’s supposed to have died of three days later?”

Sarah held her voice steady, looking nowhere in particular. “Oh, knowing Professor Farintosh I expect she intended to focus more on the sub-textual lesbian attraction between the two principals and the Manichean dualism of protagonist and antagonist, actually.”

Sub-textual lesbian attraction? What kind of medical conference was this?” John paused. A fugitive, wistful grin hovered about his lips. “Not that a bit of lesbian sub-text wouldn’t have livened up most of the conferences I’ve been forced to attend in my career. All of them, in fact.”

“Ah! I fear Sarah may have – no doubt unintentionally – misled you.” The barbed note in Sherlock’s voice caught her by surprise, like encountering a fishbone in sole Veronique. “Not a medical conference at all, was it? And not in Chicago, either. When you arrived the other day I could hardly help noticing that your baggage was checked through from Denver. That narrowed my search considerably, especially when I – acquired – Professor Farintosh’s lecturing schedule. An appointment with Deathcon. How – ironic.”

“Deathcon?” John mouthed the words rather than said them, his glance shifting between Sherlock and Sarah like a boggled tennis umpire in the midst of a prolonged rally.

Sherlock tapped his screen. “The longest-running feminist crime shocker and thriller convention in the world, according to the website. How did you find the University of Colorado?”

“I just got on a bus from the airport and there it was,” she snapped. John’s hand, out of Sherlock’s line of sight, made a cool it gesture. She took a deep, steadying, breath.

“I didn’t plan on misleading anyone. But I’d already booked it by the time we started going out together and you know what people can be like about fan conventions – I didn’t want you to write me off as a weirdo.”

John’s glance took in, eloquently, the Baker Street living room; the jar of preserved human eyeballs on the mantelpiece, the smiley outlined in bullet holes in the wall and the skull which was, at present, upside down on the floor, serving as the holder for the TV and DVD remote controls.

“You worried about that?” he probed delicately.

“Well, all this – ” Sarah swept an explanatory hand around – “could be passed off as blokey bachelor squalor taken to the nth degree, at a pinch. But include the ‘F’ word, and some men just start frothing. You should read the crime-fic forums, each time Deathcon’s coming up. And whatever you say, those guys will not believe we’ve had male delegates attending for years, who leave with all their bits still intact.”

She grinned. “Actually, John, you should come along next time. Your blog’s been a massive hit. Practically every panel someone brought up ‘A Study in Pink’ as an example of a tectonic shift in detective writing. Mind you, there’s a counter theory that the pronouns have been shifted around a bit, and really it’s a coded description of a woman’s struggles to cope with an abusive marriage.”

“Sign me up to the newsgroup instantly,” John muttered.

Sherlock glared at them both, but it was a half-hearted effort; his bubbling excitement at whatever had set him off on the Farintosh trail again could scarcely be suppressed.

“Well?” Sarah said, “Who did it?”

He stretched back in his chair, his fingers locked behind the back of his head.

“Oh, who poisoned her has been obvious from the beginning. I’d have thought even you –” He left that sentence hanging. “What was behind it; now, there’s the mystery. Anyway, we haven’t a moment to lose. Sarah, I’ve been checking your party invitations. Lacking, terribly.”

“You’ve what?” But Sherlock so obviously was the type who would hack into any mail file which presented itself she’d taken precautions weeks ago; anything half-way sensitive went encrypted from the clinic machine. Though even that, she thought pessimistically, probably just increased the thrill of the chase.

“You haven’t invited the right sort of people. After all, now Lestrade’s decided it’s natural death they’ll be shuffling Professor Farintosh out of the morgue and into the crematorium before you can say knife. Molly assures me the waiting list for her drawers resembles that for Eton.”

John convulsed into a coughing fit.

“What’s that got to do with it?” Sarah enquired, since he was plainly in no shape to do it for her.

Sherlock shrugged. “Well, you knew this woman. It seems hardly decent to let her memory go without even a wake.”

“A wake? As far as upbringing goes she was Ulster Scots and as far as religion went she once called Richard Dawkins ‘a wobble-bottomed agnostic wannabe’. To his face. I don’t think on either count a wake would be something she’d consider at all appropriate.”

“If she’s in a position to consider it at all, at least one plank of her belief system must have a severe case of woodworm,” John said, raising his head from his handkerchief. “These affairs are never really for the dead person, anyway.”

The shadow was back in his eyes; the one Sarah knew preceded sleepless nights and lop-sided pacing across the bedroom until dawn broke. At least Sherlock’s relentless poking at murderers’ nests was a sure cure for insomnia; no doubt for a few days they would all be too busy trying to prevent random maniacs offing them in interestingly twisted ways for lack of sleep to be top of their agendas.

She bowed to the inevitable. “Oh, well. I suppose at the end of the day it’s only another box of M&S mixed canapés and a couple of jugs of sangria. Plus the chance of inviting an unknown poisoner round for drinkie-poos, natch. What could possibly go wrong?”

Sherlock pulled a couple of pages of print-out from under his laptop and tossed them over to the sofa. “These are the names – mostly pseudonyms – of people who’ve had more than de minimis on-line contact with Professor Farintosh between last year’s Deathcon and the closing of registrations for this year’s. We’re looking for someone who wasn’t at this year’s Deathcon, currently based in the United Kingdom, post-grad level in a humanities subject though probably with at least one ‘A’ level in science or maths, not currently affiliated with any academic institution, seething sense of superiority and resentment concealed by a nondescript veneer, currently employed in the latest of a succession of low grade administrative jobs, this time in the healthcare field, and either a fervent Baconian or a member of the Richard III Society, conceivably both.”

They looked at him. He sighed. “Or, for present purposes, anyone on those lists you can get an email or PM address for who appears to be within reasonable travelling distance of London.”

“Ah!” John breathed. “The immemorial ‘Are you free Tuesday?’ method of team selection.”

He moved from the sofa to sit at his own PC. There being no apparent help for it, Sarah extracted her own netbook from her bag. For a few strained moments there was silence in the room, broken only by the tapping of keyboards in ragged harmony. Then John raised his head.

“I’m sorry, but some of these names are just – mrsterrorwinkle?”

“I wouldn’t bother,” Sarah said briskly. “Everyone knows she’s just a sock for cuffsgrrl, and I’ve already invited her.”

“Completely different frequency of ‘y’ and ‘o’ usage; also, cuffsgrrl approaches compound verbs in a manner which suggests she learned creative writing from a narrowly focussed prescriptivist with an unhealthy fetish for Strunk & White’s less defensible maunderings,” Sherlock drawled. “Mrsterrorwinkle, by contrast, attacks English syntax with a striking originality which is all her – or, I rather think, his – own. Invite them both. They’ll come.”

“Why should they?” Sarah twisted her head round to look at him. “If you’ve compiled this list from everyone who’s had more than passing on-line contact with Professor Farintosh over the last year then you’ll have realised that she was the sort who could start a flamewar in a one-woman submersible 2000 metres beneath the Polar ice-cap.”

Sherlock smiled. “Refreshing, isn’t it? I’ve cross-correlated. The two of the sample group to achieve anything like the same percentage of DIAFs and cognates in comments both earn a respectable living as US-based shock jocks and the third closest was Lord Mandelson. Though I suspect Mycroft of skewing the statistics on the latter. I suppose he has to find his outlets where he can.”

“So?” John, too, was looking across at him. “What makes you think that they’ll come to a party where we’re supposedly holding a wake for the woman?”

“Because the people on those lists share one interest in addition to their detestation of the late Professor Marina Farintosh. Crime. And there, of course, we can offer them an attraction beyond their wildest dreams.”

Heavy irony suffused John’s voice. “Oh? And what might that be? Do tell?”

Sherlock swivelled his chair round on one leg, leaning across the short distance to where John sat at the PC, so intensely focussed on him that there might have only been the two of them in the room.

“You, John,” he breathed. “You.”