Chapter 4 - The Affair of the Asphyxiated Acafan by A.J. Hall
Mrs Hudson hitched her behind onto a kitchen stool, looking as if she was settling in for the duration. “I take you didn’t precisely get on with the late Professor Farintosh, dear?”
Harry twiddled one of her curls round her middle finger. After her manic burst of energy she had withdrawn into herself, her shoulders slumped and her voice barely above a whisper. “It was a long time ago.”
“Whether it was yesterday or ten million years B.C., she clearly made one hell of an impression.” Sally Donovan paused. “But, as one girl to another, it’s not the best strategy to run out and buy champagne all round when you hear someone’s died suddenly. Not unless you’ve got a kink for cop-shops. Specially not when someone – ” she pointedly avoided looking at Sarah – “seems to think the death isn’t natural.”
“Oh, God.” Harry gulped. “I’m so fucking thick. I heard about Professor Farintosh’s kidneys and John’s taking them to the lab and still didn’t join the dots. I suppose this is another ‘Study in Pink’. Someone killed her, didn’t they?”
Sally opened her mouth, but Sarah raised her hand to forestall her. “We’ll have to wait for the test results. But suppose you tell us why someone might have wanted to?”
The appeal to reason seemed to work. Harry nodded, paused for a second, eyes closed, marshalling her thoughts, and began.
“It would all have been so much simpler if John had been the older one. No-one ever bothers to ask why, when a kid tells you they want to be a doctor. Though, in John’s case, I think they probably should have.”
Sarah winced, inwardly. So John’s sister had spotted that contradiction; the kindness, the infinite patience, the bone-deep integrity – and the hand that could hold a gun as steadily as it held a suturing needle and kill with as much precision as it cured. Sherlock must have seen it, too. She shivered, wondering what, if anything, that explained, and whether she really wanted to know.
“John’s a good doctor.”
Harry looked up, her caramel-brown eyes painfully familiar.
“I’m sure. But, still – ” She shrugged. “Anyway, that was the way the dice fell. I was the first in my family to go to University, and I was fucking well going to read English at Oxford, however much Mum tried to corner me for little heart-to-heart chats by the airing cupboard. You know: ‘But what are you do with it afterwards, you know you hate teaching?’ and ‘You’ve got your nose in a book all the time as it is; why go to college to do it?’ John could escape; he went off playing war games with the OTC every spare minute. He was fucking lucky. But I was fighting a real war, and Mum didn’t believe in the Geneva Convention.”
She reached out to top up her glass.
“I never told anyone in the family, but as soon I fetched up at Wadham I landed right in the middle of another battle. Syllabus reform. Only the Oxford University English faculty could make the suggestion of dropping Middle High German for Modern Caribbean Literature sound like a proposal to cede Israel to Iran.”
Mrs Hudson patted her arm sympathetically. “Nothing worse, I always say, when everything’s falling about a girl’s ears than having no-one to confide in. I hope you found someone.”
“Found someone? Oh, yes, I found someone all right. Eventually.” She drained her glass to the bottom. “I found Dr Fucking Marina Farintosh, didn’t I?”
“‘Kinnell!” Sally said, expressively, and yelped as she sliced into her finger with the vegetable knife. Sarah passed a wodge of paper towel without taking her eyes off Harry.
“A bit of detail wouldn’t hurt,” she prompted. “Given what you’ve already said about her.”
“No-one gets crucified without they volunteer to be a Messiah first.” Harry’s face was a marble mask. “And, believe me, she was. We – the radical students, the ones who wanted change – we lay down and kissed her fucking feet. She was going to sweep away the last remnants of the Tolkien-Lewis syllabus; bring in critical theory and gender studies and post-colonial studies and genre studies and kidlit studies, and generally overturn the whole thing from the bottom up.”
“So what went wrong?”
Harry paused, her delicate, pointed chin balanced on her hand. “I got her hopes up. You see, Dr Farintosh loathed everyone impartially. She got worked up about causes, but mostly she took the view that people were born shits, so better never to get close to anyone. When she made exceptions, then the real trouble began. And I was fucking stupid enough to feel proud of being an exception.”
Until Trinity term of Harry’s first year at Wadham, she explained, Dr Farintosh had been out of college on sabbatical, working on a book. Or, as the upper years gleefully speculated, in jail, subject to a restraining order or drying out in a West Coast clinic.
Not that Harry had much time during her first two terms to wonder about absent members of the SCR. There was too much to learn.
She learned that Oxford harboured a peculiar, seeping damp that resisted even the thickest pullovers. She learned the only thing to do about the taste of the tap water was to put in double the amount of coffee suggested on the tin, and – following later, advanced coaching – add a splash of brandy to the resulting mix.
She learned Old English had impossible vowel sounds and the human throat must have evolved significantly since they were in everyday use.
She learned that braying young men with invisible chins and preposterous notions about why hoi polloi couldn’t be trusted with a vote were not, actually, characters from pre-war comic fiction but people whom one met over the breakfast table. She learned breakfast was a completely irrelevant meal to any well-balanced person.
She learned that a reasonably large number of women were willing to say “yes” when she asked them out, and a decent percentage of them would also agree to stay in with her, afterwards.
She learned that having an active (at times, downright athletic) sex life did not, automatically, transmit itself down the telephone lines to her family or paint itself on her skin when she went home for the Christmas vac.
She learned that girls who were comfortably out to their own families were irresistibly attractive to her. She learned they could not interpret ‘I would rather put my own arm in a fucking meat-grinder than tell my parents about us’ as a literal truth, not an amusingly hyperbolic description of natural nervousness. She learned matters, after that point, never ended well.
She learned nothing in Gaudy Night should be taken as a reliable guide to academic integrity, but that walking by the Cherwell picking out the weediest bit in which to jump – purely as a thought experiment, naturally – was nonetheless a curiously soothing pastime.
The Easter holidays of her first year, with the worst of her romantic blow-ups in the jagged, recent past, and first year exams in the scarily close future, had been very bad indeed. That was when she realised that returning to her family, telling them the whole thing had been a disastrous error of judgement and listening to their soothing reassurance she’d done the right thing, tinged with a – doubtless unspoken – dollop of “Didn’t we tell you so?” was quite impossible. Whereas the odds on her completing her first year at Oxford without ending either in the Warneford Mental Hospital or that seductive green bit of river above the rollers and below St Hilda’s boathouse were merely very, very improbable.
So she had come back to an Oxford stretching in spring sunshine, damp and pale honey gold, garlanded with green leaves and heavy with the smell of early lilac.
And then she had learned that Pimms tastes a great deal better than instant coffee (with or without brandy), and that English literature was an entirely different proposition when taught by Dr Marina Farintosh.
“Christ alone knows what happened to her on that sabbatical,” Harry said. “She’d spent it in the States, but she might as well have been on the road to fucking Damascus. Judging by the stuff she published before and the stuff she published afterwards, she’d turned into a completely different woman. She left Oxford a standard-issue Eng. Lit scholar with a minor bee in her bonnet about Mary Shelley, the neglected genius of 19th century literature. She came back raving that the whole system was rotten to the core and even the radical deconstructionists didn’t go nearly far enough.”
“What, you’re claiming she got recruited by Al-Q’aeda in her year off?” Sally demanded.
Harry laughed, a ragged, broken sound but with a genuine note of humour in it. “Trust me, if it had just been terrorism the Oxford English faculty wouldn’t have batted an eye-lid. Advanced critical theory, on the other hand – that’s fucking lethal.”
Literally, it seems.
Sarah cast a glance at the kitchen clock. Almost eight-twenty; John and Sherlock were bound to appear soon. Clearly if Harry had felt able to confide in her brother she’d have done so before now. If she didn’t get the story now they’d never hear it – and it had to be relevant to Professor Farintosh’s death, surely; she’d only had ten weeks or so in Sherlock’s orbit, but she’d already learned that passions this deep went with murder like horseradish with rare roast beef.
“Look, is there any chance of compressing the technical stuff a bit? Just for the benefit of those of us who haven’t done an English degree.”
Harry nodded. “OK. I’ve not looked at this stuff for over ten years, anyway. To keep things simple, suppose we start from the death of the author.”
“We are still talking about Professor Farintosh here, aren’t we? Because if there’s one thing I sodding well hate, it’s starting off with a nice simple murder – not that I’m conceding anything on that score, by the way – and then discovering we’ve got a serial killer on our hands. ‘Specially the way the freak looks when that happens. Like a kid at Christmas.” Sally turned her attention to the baguettes, slicing with savage emphasis.
“Um –” Harry boggled visibly at her.
“It’s a figure of speech,” Sarah said hastily. “‘Death of the author’ means you aren’t supposed to guess what the author intended to say; it’s what the individual reader finds in the text that matters.”
“Oh, yeah? Sounds like a snarky defence brief trying to take your notebooks apart when you’re in the witness box. ‘You may claim that’s what you meant, D.S. Donovan, but what you actually wrote conveys a very different impression of my client, wouldn’t you agree?’ I sodding hate those smarmy bastards.”
“Actually,” Harry said slowly, as if something had just started to make sense, “that’s exactly like Dr Farintosh’s tutorials. At first, it was like white-water rafting, a mad ride with no brakes. I even remember telling Mel, my tutorial partner, that she should brace herself and enjoy it. That was when Dr Farintosh left her in tears, just for some throwaway comment about Shakespeare being a blatant propagandist about Richard III. God, I was such a fucking self-important little sod in those days.”
Either a Baconian or a member of the Richard III Society, possibly both. Sarah made her voice casual with an enormous effort.
“I take it Dr Farintosh wasn’t a Ricardian?”
“You mean you’ve never read Smoke? Or Mirrors? The books she’d been working on during her sabbatical?” The note of stunned disbelief in Harry’s voice made her sound exactly like John, describing Sherlock’s utter ignorance of the solar system over clinic coffee. Sarah grinned at her.
“Never even heard of them.”
“Jesus, they were fucking ground-breaking,” Harry said. “Smoke was supposed to be about the Princes in the Tower and Mirrors about who really wrote Shakespeare. But, in each case, they were really about the human capacity for belief. What makes someone attach themselves to some mad theory and stick to it against all odds. I suppose it’s where you end up if you concentrate on reader response and abandon the text altogether.”
“Abandon the text altogether? What kind of a bleeding English professor was she?” From her tone, Sally sounded as if she regretted not being able to pull the late Professor Farintosh in for impersonation.
“A fucking brilliant one.” Harry’s voice had an edge of steel. “Nearest thing to a genius I ever met.”
Sally and Mrs Hudson exchanged glances.
“So we’re talking obnoxious, bonkers and with all the social skills of a spoilt three-year old, then?” Sally hazarded.
“How did you – ? Anyway, that’s not the point. Half the dons in Oxford are like that. It was her mind that set her apart. Like light filtered through solid diamond. But she was obsessed with belief; everything she wrote after her sabbatical kept coming back to it, like a kid picking at a scab.”
“She was some kind of religious nut?” Sally looked as if she was fumbling for solid ground in the midst of an ever deepening morass. Sarah wished her luck.
Harry shook her head, her gold-brown curls tossing in a way which would certainly have had Bingley asking for a second dance.
“Oh, Jesus, no – she loathed religion. She’d been brought up in Belfast during the 1960s, so you couldn’t fucking well blame her. But she said atheism was a religion, too; if you pressed hard enough, you could always provoke atheists into a confession of faith.”
Abruptly, something clicked.
“My God,” Sarah said. “No wonder she hung around fan conventions and forums. You’ve only to go through one major shipping war and you’ll never see faith and belief in the same light again.”
Harry nodded. “Yup. Readers became her experimental subjects. I didn’t see it at the time, but that was the difference between how she treated me and how she treated Mel. To Dr Farintosh, I was a junior colleague. Mel was a laboratory rat. And yet the weirdest thing was, if you’d written down everything she said to each of us, word for word, you wouldn’t have fucking been able to tell any difference, not on paper.”
Sally shuddered. “We had a sarge like that, back when I was still in uniform. Ended up with his head blown off, trying to stop a security van hijack. Two years later, when I left to join CID, there were still rumours floating about that someone had faked the ballistics reports and the ammo’d come from our armoury. Give me a boss who’s a bastard to your face, all the time, than one who’s sweet as honey one minute, and stabbing you in the back the next.”
“So what went wrong, dear?” Mrs Hudson, Sarah noticed, also had her eye on the clock.
“Oh, the stupidest thing. It was the start of my third year, and I was working for Finals like crazy. I went up to Oxford first week in September. John started his first year at London a couple of weeks later, so I came down to give him his big sister’s support moving him into his digs. You know; making sure he’d got an electric kettle and tea bags and a bottle of vodka and all the other bits and bobs you need for your first few days at Uni.”
The aroma of freshly baked pastry rising from the oven alerted Sarah the vol-au-vents needed her attention. She pulled out the tray and began beating an egg for the glaze.
“You’ll be eating party food for the next three weeks if you go on like this.” Sally said, sneaking an unglazed vol-au-vent from the tray. “How many are you expecting to turn up, anyway? Sorry to interrupt, Harry. What next?”
“John came along to Paddington to put me on the train back to Oxford. Just as it moved off he tossed a paperback through the window and said, ‘They even teach this one at Staff College, Camberley; don’t turn your nose up at it.’ And the train pulled out and I looked down at what he’d given me. It was Georgette Heyer’s An Infamous Army. I’d not read any Heyer before; I’d been the snotty sort who went, ‘Ooh, Regency romance; all heaving bosoms and alpha males in tight calfskin breeches.’”
“Well, and?” Sally looked even more baffled.
Prudently, Harry let that slide. “Anyway, it had been the best day John and I had spent since as long as I could remember, and I didn’t want to disappoint him when he asked if I’d read it. There’s fuck all else to do on that train journey, anyway. By page 10 I was riveted. Suddenly I absolutely got Dr Farintosh’s point in ‘The Ghettoisation of Genre’. And then the train pulled up at Reading and the next thing I knew the woman herself was in the carriage, about to sit down in front of me. It was uncanny. It was as if I’d conjured her up.”
“She said hello, and something about how nice it was to have someone intelligent to talk to on the train for once. Then she saw what I was reading. And her face changed. She looked so disappointed – and, underneath, furious, like someone who’d fallen for a con artist and was kicking themselves for being such an idiot. But she didn’t say anything and, looking at her, I knew there was nothing I could say, either. The next tutorial I had with her, I discovered for myself the difference between being a junior colleague and a lab rat. Except they say scientists sometimes feel quite affectionate towards their rats.”
“All that just ‘cos she caught you reading a bit of historical fluff in the train? She must have been bleeding demented.”
Harry put her head on one side. “Looked at from her perspective, she was upholding standards of academic integrity and I – I’d just turned out to be fucking Arthur Robinson.”
“Who’s Arthur Robinson and why were you –”
“Sally, d’you mind getting the sausage rolls out of the fridge and shoving them in the oven? I’m all over egg yolk. And I know I’ve probably over-catered, but at least people eat sausage rolls. The way the sausage tomato cheese surprise looks, the only people trying it will be people hoping the surprise is golden tickets. Look, Harry, you can’t get away with that. There must be more to how you reacted than you two having a falling out over whether reading Georgette Heyer constitutes endorsing the values of the patriarchy.”
“Oh, there was.” Harry’s voice sounded dull. Pain, not boredom, Sarah diagnosed.
“Well, don’t leave us in the dark, dear. After all, Sarah’s quite right. You’re not the sort to get so upset about a little thing, not from what John tells me.”
“John – talks about me?”
“Well, not a lot, dear. Army men don’t, as a rule. But I’ve been about a bit. I know how to read between the lines. And I know you’ve had your ups and downs, but whatever you may think, he does respect your right to go your own way. Not like some brothers I could mention.”
Harry paused. “There was that business with the books. But that came later…”
About the fifth week in Hilary term of her final year - late February, Harry translated when she saw their uncomprehending expressions – the English faculty became aware they were housing a vandal in their midst. One who, in defiance of a solemn oath given as a condition of matriculation – “Yes, they really do make you swear an oath, not to kindle fire and everything” – had taken to cutting paragraphs from Bodleian library books with what the Regius Professor of Anatomy opined was almost certainly a surgical scalpel.
On the Sunday morning of sixth week, an undergraduate checked her St Anne’s college pigeonhole. In it she found a small box of Belgian chocolates and an anonymous letter complimenting her charms in somewhat – vivid - terms. Subsequent analysis showed the letter had been assembled from words cut – apparently with a surgical scalpel - from a rare edition of the Complete Works of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester. Being clear-headed, even for an engineer, the undergraduate muttered, “Ugh, creepy stalker” and took it to that evening’s JCR meeting. The motion requesting the SCR to investigate a matter of urgent student safety passed by an overwhelming majority.
Oxford college walls are as resistant to salacious gossip as shrimping nets to gamma rays. By Wednesday of sixth week fourteen women had come forward (from Pembroke, Corpus, Somerville, St John’s, Mansfield, Merton, St Peter’s and Trinity) with similar missives.
A frantic check of the Bodleian shelves and some rather high-level typographical analysis showed the letters had been composed using pages from the Bodleian’s copies of the following authors: Brontë (A. and C. but, oddly, not E.), Rossetti (both C. and D.G.), Dunbar, Donne, Wyatt and Marlowe, Shelley (M. not P.B.), Braddon, Stoker and Le Fanu.
(For the sake of completeness, the chocolates were only available in five of the cases on record. Analysis proved them to be absolutely harmless, though the cherry liqueur ones made a terrible mess of the Spilsbury Visiting Lecturer in Toxicology’s best dinner trousers.)
By the start of eighth week the Oxford English faculty, after much comparison of reading lists, examination of library access logs, mutual bitchery, angsting and sherry had narrowed the field of suspects down to precisely three, all of them at Wadham.
Those three being:
Iqbal Akram, of Amritsar; Rhodes Scholar and leg spinner (4 for 21 against Essex);
Guy Spencer Musgrove, of Reigate; OUCA Committee member, Wykehamist and useful outside half for the college XV;
Harriet Octavia Watson, of Chelmsford; lesbian, English scholar and newly demoted laboratory rat.
“Oh, no!” Sarah exclaimed. “They suspected you? Preposterous.”
“Only people doing a special topic with Dr Farintosh studied Braddon. And –” She shrugged. “I knew a couple of the girls who’d got the notes. I’d even fooled around in a punt with one of them, in second year. Credit to her, she told them she’d believe I’d done it a century or so after Hell froze over. But Oxford academics don’t get out much. Most of the investigative committee were fucking creaming themselves at the idea of a bit of girl on girl action. Or so I heard later.”
Academic disciplinary procedures move with glacial slowness. It was not until the second week of Trinity – Harry’s last term at Oxford, when she was up to her neck in revision for Finals, with all the stress that entailed – that she even learned she was a suspect.
By then – because it is a law of physics, immutable and unchangeable, that information passes at a speed commensurate with the social status of the person requiring it to pass – Musgrove’s father, the stockbroker, and his uncle, the M.P., had already made objections to having Marina Farintosh play any part on Guy’s examining panel. The Secretary of the Rhodes Trust had put it in writing that he would not tolerate one of his scholars being examined by someone who had stated on record that an Indian student accepting a scholarship named after an arch-imperialist had “internalised his colonial oppression to a degree justifying compulsory committal under the Mental Health Act 1982”
So only Harry had ever been questioned by Dr Farintosh.
“She gave me a hell of a time,” Harry said, tears showing silver down her cheeks, like snail-trails on concrete. “She thought I’d done it. I told her I didn’t – but – she’d lost faith in me already. In that railway carriage. And the other two – she hated what they stood for so much, she bent over backwards to ensure her biases weren’t going to hurt them.”
But the anonymous tributes and cuttings from books had ceased by that time, so no-one ever knew who the culprit had been. Reluctantly, Oxford let the case drop.
“My finals weren’t bad,” Harry said. “But they weren’t brilliant, either. The sort of second class degree a tutor can explain away in a reference – or not, as she chooses. I didn’t get the post-grad research places I applied for, so I had to go home. After all. Then I discovered Dr Fucking Farintosh had tipped off Mum about the Bodleian business, so she could get ‘help’ for me. Help! She must have guessed ‘mental’ was the fucking dirtiest word our parents knew. Though she outed me as well, in passing. I stuck six months of Mum telling me all the time that she didn’t care what I’d done, I was her little girl. That was when I ran. Lied about my qualifications, took a school-leaver level job in the City, and clawed my way up from there. With my first big bonus I bought a Porsche Carrera. I called it Marina. Fuck. You. Doctor Farintosh. You’re dead. I’m alive. Fuck. You.”
Sarah found herself holding the Moët above Harry’s glass with only the dimmest flicker of conscience.
Harry looked at her; beautiful, distraught, self-aware. “Don’t tell John I told you all this crap, though. Please.”
A new voice broke in.
“Congratulations. This has really been immensely interesting. Most of the essential points, of course, I had already inferred, but the light you shed on the late Professor Farintosh has clarified my conclusions immeasurably.”
A familiar, impossible voice. Out of the darkness of her hallway one long, distinctive patch of shadow detached itself and strode forwards. As he came into the pool of light cast by the kitchen door she saw he was holding something out to her.
“John’s still tied up at the lab. But he told me to make sure you got this.”
He placed a bottle of vermouth down on the kitchen counter.
Sarah’s fingers clenched around the pastry-brush. If only it were a carving knife. Or a surgical saw. “Sherlock. What the hell are you doing in my flat?”
“Have I got the wrong time? John led me to believe there was a party here.” Sherlock’s glance trailed lazily over the group in the kitchen, assessing them and finding them subtly wanting.
“Everyone else pressed the buzzer.”
He shrugged, a movement of effortless elegance. “I followed John’s sister up the stairs.”
Harry looked – literally - gob-smacked. Sarah had witnessed countless late night A&E punch-ups in her hospital days. Experience filled in the next steps. The shock would wear off in a second. Then the pain of having exposed her hatred of a recently murdered woman in front of the world’s first consulting detective and laid bare bitter family upheavals in front of her brother’s flatmate would hit her with full force.
Sarah made her voice mortuary-cold, infused it with concentrated rage. “Why, Sherlock? Just for schoolboy kicks?”
His lips clamped down and, for a second, an authentically playground rage blazed in his eyes. She summoned up the expression she had last used as Lady Bracknell in the sixth form play, and stared at him, unblinking. When he spoke again his voice held an audible trace of petulance.
“A young woman runs out of the street door and into the road when I’m eleven yards away. A Landrover Discovery misses her by six inches and she doesn’t even notice. You could hardly expect me to ignore something like that. Especially not when I recognised her as John’s sister.”
Sarah had never seen a picture of Harry in John’s possession. She hoped “recognised ” implied “from her marked physical resemblance to her brother” rather than “from stalkerish internet searches carried out on my flatmate’s nearest and dearest” but, frankly, had her doubts.
“Oh, was that what the hooting was all about?” A little colour had returned to Harry’s face. Mrs Hudson reached for the champagne bottle, filled Harry’s glass, and tipped the dregs into her own.
“Drink up, dear. ‘Moët does more than Milton can/To reconcile the ways of God to man.’ One of my Raymond’s favourite little sayings.”
Sherlock raised his eyebrows, but refused to be distracted.
“Being John’s sister, she had almost certainly come from this flat. One problem; the party hadn’t started yet. Also, her raincoat was unbuttoned and half-off her shoulder. Conclusion; she’d put it on while under the influence of some emotional shock and, from the fact that she hadn’t bothered to fasten it properly once she realised how bad the weather was outside, she had no intention of staying out long or of travelling far.”
Harry regarded him with a familiar expression of mingled fascination and horror; had Sherlock lived three hundred years ago he would surely have been executed as a warlock.
He raised his long, elegant hands, ticking off points on his fingers.
“So; we have a preoccupied young woman who has clearly received a recent emotional shock. What kind of shock, and where? Had she received it before setting out, she would simply have cried off. So, she must have learned something in the flat which caused her to rush out into the street. Not to rush home, though; I followed her as far as the Tesco, which has the usual bright neon lighting. On a night like this, someone watching through the shop windows can see every transaction at very little risk of being observed himself.”
Sally Donovan muttered, “Freak” half-under her breath. She poured peppercorns into the mortar and ground the pestle with savage emphasis.
“Someone who leaves a party, runs through heavy rain to a local shop and loads herself up with wine is, quite plainly, intending to return. Three bottles of brand name champagne, though? That suggests an extravagant urge to celebrate, quite at odds with her distraught appearance. A deeply conflicted response to a piece of news only just received, then. What could that news have been? Unlike the later invitees, Harry had no reason to be aware of the party’s secondary purpose. Until, that is, she arrived.”
Harry looked up at him, bafflement radiating off her like steam. “What secondary purp – ?”
“Fill you in later,” Sarah hissed. “Trust me, it’s never a good idea to break the flow at these moments.”
Sherlock looked as if something had just gone ‘click’ in his brain and an entirely new set of cogs and gears begun to operate. His voice, as he continued his account, sounded just a shade blander than before.
“But her reaction would imply that Harry had a close personal connection to Professor Farintosh which, in turn, would imply either that John was unaware of it or he had deliberately concealed it from me.”
“Sherlock, dear, I know I’ve mentioned this before, it’s not that we’re not grateful for everything you do – I really can’t grumble in the circumstances – but I do sometimes wonder if you’d be happier in yourself if you could manage not to think the worst of everybody, just occasionally.”
Sherlock ignored his landlady. “I inclined towards the former, given John’s manifest incompetence at dissimulation.”
“I wouldn’t underestimate him,” Harry muttered. “Our parents went to their graves convinced Hammy the school hamster died as a result of a tragic series of mishaps involving a faulty cage-latch, a partly opened window and a rodent’s tendency to panic when lost in a strange place.”
“Ah yes. A forgivable error in design scale. Leonardo da Vinci’s parachute designs were, inherently, practicable; they simply needed to have been drawn bigger.”
Sally cast her eyes towards the ceiling. “I really do not want to know.”
“In any event, it seemed something worth pursuing. While Harry was paying for the champagne I crossed back over the road and ducked down behind those wheelie bins just beside the street door. When you buzzed her in I slipped out of hiding, caught the door before it could close fully behind her and – after a suitable pause - followed her upstairs.”
Sarah could read Harry’s thoughts as if she had screamed them aloud. You could have been anyone. Not just my brother’s bonkers flatmate, invited to the party. Absolutely fucking anyone. That easily. That close.
Harry’s voice dropped to a whisper. “But - I didn’t see or hear anything.”
Sherlock looked smug. “That’s what you should expect when it’s me doing the following.”
Mrs Hudson coughed. “I don’t think that’s quite the point Harry was trying to make, dear.”
Sally moved unobtrusively closer and slid an arm around Harry’s shoulder. “That’s bad, that is. Men following girls into buildings. Sort of thing the Met has to follow up. ‘Unacceptable to ignore.’ That’s what the Assistant Commissioner said on the news last week. If we’d taken action at the right time, guys like Reid and Warboys could have been put away years ago.” She pulled out her mobile. “Just say the word, kiddo, and we can pull him in. City this size; lots of unsolved crimes on the books. I’m not sure we could get him actually to confess to any of them. But I guarantee we’d have a lot of fun trying.”
Sherlock yawned. “You threaten to pull me in so frequently it’s become boring. An emasculated blood-sport. Post-New Labour fox-hunting; look, no hounds.”
“You’re not a fox. No-one’s going to start a campaign against cruelty to you. You’re not nearly cuddly enough.”
Abruptly he straightened from his slouch against the door jamb, drawing himself to his full, impressive height, dominating the kitchen, his mouth set, eyes intense, focussed. “It’s a murder I’m investigating. I need optimal information. I can’t have the wool dragged over my eyes by paying misguided attention to the risk of other people getting their nerves jangled or their feelings hurt. I didn’t break in; I exploited an existing security gap of which you are now aware. Think of it as a physical form of ethical hacking.”
“Hacking. That’s a thought. Do you know how many extradition requests we get from the States, trying to clamp down on over-educated poncy twits who decide to take an unscheduled wander through their databases? You can get decades for it over there.”
Sarah thought of Mycroft and airport security, and kept her mouth shut.
Sherlock sighed theatrically. “As Camden Council’s community safety team and the block managing agents will discover when they open their emails on Monday, the Metropolitan Police have already warned them about the crime hazards posed by the wheelie bin placing and the lack of effective exterior lighting near the street doorway. With a reminder that under the Dorset Yacht principles, anyone suffering assault as a result of their disregard of basic safety would have a strong civil claim against them.”
Sally spun on the spot. “Sherlock, if you’ve bleeding well spoofed my log-on again, I’m going to cut your throat with Sarah’s veggie knife – trust a doctor to keep her kitchen kit sharp - and then we’ll dissect you in the bath. Call it a party game.”
“The bath’s full of ice. And beer,” Sarah observed.
Sherlock inclined his head. “Thank you. That would be most appreciated. Especially since I seem to somewhat behind everyone else when it comes to the party spirit. Becks, for choice.”
“I’ll get it, dear,” Mrs Hudson said, and vanished bathroom-wards. Sherlock and Sally stared at each other for a moment, until Sherlock murmured, “Council jobsworths are very hierarchical. Those sort would ignore a sergeant . They’d only pay attention to an inspector.”
Sally paused. She put her head on one side. “Fancy some dips to go with that beer?”
Sherlock inclined his head. She pushed the dip tray across to him. He stretched out one elegant hand, hovered for a moment over the vegetable slices, selected a carrot baton, dipped it in the taramasalata and raised it to his lips. Holding it with finicky, exaggerated precision between finger and thumb throughout.
Sarah repressed an urge to giggle.
Harry’s face, by contrast, was all cold, focussed intensity. She didn’t take her eyes off Sherlock. “So, my brother thinks you can read minds, or near as, and deduce that’s the Pope’s sneezed from the way a nun walks down the street. If you’re that good, this should be a fucking doddle. Wadham. 1996. Three students. Tell me which of us did it.”
“Oh, really,” Sherlock said, his impatience at the world’s sheer unforgiveable stupidity naked in every twitch of those mobile lips. “Just apply your mind. Any of you. What kind of person cuts passages out of Bodleian library books with a scalpel?”
“Someone who needs to be strung up by their thumbs and lowered slowly into a pit of scorpions?” Sarah suggested.
“That, too,” he agreed, and paused, looking at her with an expectant expression. She blinked, realising that he was not, for once, being either provocative or showing off. He actually did think she could supply a valid answer. Then, suddenly, she had it.
“It’s attention-seeking. Like graffiti on walls. It’s saying, ‘Look at me’.”
“Precisely.” He snapped his fingers. “Consider Oxford’s student body. 90% white, 55% male, 47% privately educated and a lot more heteronormative than it likes to think. Three suspects: a Rhodes scholar from the Punjab, a lesbian from an Essex grammar school and the son of a Reigate stockbroker. And the highly trained minds of the English faculty still didn’t consider which of those three actually needed to commit pointless acts of petty vandalism in order to stand out from the dull, grey mass.”
Harry’s fingers convulsed against her champagne flute. “Afterwards – Guy used to look at me sometimes, as if he was laughing inside. I wonder what became of him.”
Sherlock shrugged. “A man who, at the age of twenty, has the ability to turn his investigators’ prejudices to his advantage and the self-restraint to stop his amusements at the precise psychological moment to cause the maximum damage without being caught? He’ll rise from crime to crime until he ends on a murder charge. Any day now, perhaps, someone will move into a house where he lived five years ago and dig just a little too deep when they’re laying a patio.”
Out of the tail of her eye Sarah saw Sally Donovan move closer to the kitchen window, reach inside her jacket and flip open her mobile.
“Hi, that you Vince? You know that Rupert we pulled in over the West Acton school business? Yes, I know about the alibi, but can you pull up his details again - yes, I’ll wait. That’s the one. I think we’d better take another look at him. He had a golf bag in his car, so find out which club he plays at, and we’ll aim to pick him up at the nineteenth hole. That should unsettle the smarmy git. Oh, and if DI Parker asks, tell him we had a tip-off from the freak. Cheers. Be seeing you.”
“Important orientation, before anyone else arrives,” Sherlock said. “I’m here in disguise.”
Sarah, Sally and Mrs Hudson stared at him, in goldfish-gulping bafflement. Harry’s glance flicked across all their faces, then back to Sherlock’s.
“Admittedly, I’m not the person to judge, here, but it doesn’t seem to be a very good one.” Her voice sounded unexpectedly tentative.
“If you can postulate a disguise good enough to fool John, Sarah, Inspector Lestrade and Mrs Hudson at close quarters in a crowded party, I’d be interested to hear your suggestion.”
“You could try disguising yourself as an urn full of ashes.” Sally apparently resented her omission. “I’ll help.”
“No need. All the people who know me well enough to identify me are already in the secret. The others – know me – if at all - only from John’s blog. Which does not, thank goodness, have pictures. So, when I portray myself as Julian, a commodities trader in the City of London, my disguise should be impenetrable.”
“Which commodity?” Harry’s voice sounded lazy, amused. Sherlock twisted his head to look her full in the face.
She nodded. “Also lead? Copper concentrate?”
“Not now. When I started. Now, I specialise.”
“Where’s your office?”
“Minories. We moved from Leadenhall Street, ten years ago.”
“What was the last airport you passed through?”
“Frankfurt – no – Zurich. Zurich was business; Frankfurt was pleasure.”
“What brings you to this party? How do you know John and Sarah?”
He smiled. “John’s sister’s a devastatingly attractive analyst for a major City bank. We met at Corney & Barrow’s winebar. She passed on the invite there.”
“Eastcheap. She told me if I fancied an interesting evening, I should show up at her brother’s party.”
“She wasn’t lying. She doesn’t, much. Except in extreme circumstances.”
Three stories below, someone pressed the buzzer.