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Chapter 5 - The Affair of the Asphyxiated Acafan by A.J. Hall

Sally Donovan wandered unsteadily into the kitchen. “Give me food. I don’t care what it tastes like, so long as it it’s stodgy. I need something to soak up the alcohol. I’ve started seeing things now.”

Sarah, given the excuse to dispose of surplus sausage-tomato-cheese surprise, cut off a healthy slice and handed it over, wrapped in a paper napkin. “Seeing what?”

Sally coughed. “Come and look for yourself. You’ll not believe me, but you might believe your own eyes. Better bring your drink. You’ll need it.”

Over by the fridge, John had been cornered by Heather and a stocky, bullet-headed young man wearing black chinos and a Coldplay T-shirt, who talked in a monotone so rasping Sarah suspected him of having bluebottle in his DNA. He’d introduced himself as Dave from Cambridge, presumably to differentiate himself from Dave from Milton Keynes, Dave the dance instructor and Dave Perkins from the flat next door, all of whom had passed through the party at one stage or another. He hadn’t admitted to blogging, but Sarah thought he was the strongest candidate for mrsterrorwinkle they’d yet seen.

John cast a ‘Beam me up Scotty’ silent appeal in her general direction. She scooped up a plate of mushroom vol-au-vents in one hand, a glass of wine in the other, mouthed, “Back in a sec” and headed towards the living room.

“See what I mean?” Sally hissed over her shoulder as Sarah paused in the doorway, trying to work out what had managed to get a hard-bitten Scotland Yard sergeant’s knickers into such a spectacular twist. Then, abruptly, she decoded the tangle of lilac sprigged cotton and endless black-trousered legs in the large armchair in the dimmest corner of the room.

She saved the vol-au-vents from disaster by a whisker, abandoned them on the nearest flat surface, and fled to the safety of the kitchen, Sally on her heels. John greeted her reappearance as if she were the Seventh Cavalry. “Sarah! Have you spotted Harry anywhere? She told me to remind her –” He paused, gulped, and then, in a flash of sheer mendacious inspiration, concluded, “To ring the cat-sitter and tell her to make absolutely sure they’re shut in separate rooms when she leaves, otherwise they’ll fight. I’d better go and make sure she does it.” He turned to the other two. “Just got to find my sister; catch up with you later.”

“Harry’s in the living room. But she’s a bit tied up at the moment –”

“Playing tonsil hockey with that long posh streak of piss who calls himself Julian,” Sally Donovan supplied helpfully. “You know the one.”

“Harry’s doing what?” John had gone a most peculiar colour; Sarah found herself looking automatically around for her emergency bag, before remembering she’d locked it in the wardrobe in her bedroom.

“Your sister?” Dave from Cambridge looked accusingly at John, as if suspecting him of having put one over on him. “I thought you said in ‘A Study in Pink’ she was a lezzo.”

John’s backbone stiffened; he straightened automatically to an angle Sarah had, weeks ago, mentally catalogued as “Parade attention.”

“Actually, I mentioned in passing she is currently undergoing a painful divorce from her partner, Clara. Simply to illustrate Sherlock’s deductive methods. At a time when I believed my blog was only of interest to family and close friends, who were already aware of the situation.”

“Well, if I’d known she’d been planning to change ends on the rebound I’d have been tempted to have a crack myself. Half the time, these girls who claim they’re dykes really just need a good seeing – awk!”

John strode forward; his face was less than an inch from Dave’s.

“It may have slipped your mind, but that’s my sister you’re talking about. Shut it, or we’ll finish this outside.”

Involuntarily, Dave stepped back a couple of paces. Then he recovered himself. His eyes slid sideways towards John’s stick, propped against the lower bank of kitchen cabinets. He raised his hands to chest height; placating, calming.

“OK, I admit it, I was out of line, mate. But, seriously, you want to watch yourself. Suppose I’d taken you up on that? You’d have bitten off well more than you could chew. You weren’t to know, but I’ve done a good bit of martial arts in my time.”

“Really?” John’s voice sounded coolly polite, lacking the urgency of a few seconds ago. “I’m not Sherlock, but somehow I rather guessed you had.”

Had Dave been a pouter pigeon, Sarah thought, repressing the urge to giggle, he would have looked – like he did now.

“Well, I like to keep in shape, get down to the dojo as often as I can manage it –”

“When I was in, we came across lots of guys like you; not out in Afghanistan, of course, but in places like Aldershot and Colchester. Hereford and Poole are full of them, or so they tell me. Guys who train once or twice a week, with rice flails and that stuff – like I expect you train – who can do twenty one-armed press-ups at a stint.”

“My best was forty-five –”

“The sort of guys who go out on Friday and Saturday nights, trying to find some squaddies to defend themselves against.”

“I’ve never –”

John continued as if he hadn’t heard a thing. “The lads had a word for blokes like that.”

He paused. The silence in the kitchen had a texture all its own. Hypnotic. Velvety. Seductive.

For an endless second Dave teetered on the edge of the abyss. Then he fell.

“And that word was?”

John contemplated him for a second. “Pâté.

He turned, and walked out of the kitchen. He might still have been on that parade ground. Not a trace of limp was visible in his even, measured strides.

“Excuse me,” Sarah said, and fled in pursuit.

She caught up with him in the stairwell outside the flat. He burned, visibly, with a cold, white anger she had never experienced before. She caught his elbow, forcing him to swing to face her.

“Well?” she demanded, mindful of the need to get the first word in.

“Well? How did you expect me to react? My supposedly lesbian sister is snogging my until now pretty convincingly asexual flatmate in your living room, right in the middle of a party full of people and you just expect me to take it in my stride?”

“In case you hadn’t noticed, John, this is 2010, not 1887. Brothers lost the right to march up to young men and demand to know if their intentions were honourable some time at the start of last century. Anyway, do apply a bit of basic bloody common sense. To begin with, Harry is not snogging Sherlock –”

“Keep your voice down.”

“Oh, that’s rich, coming from you, bellowing away like you did in the kitchen in front of that godawful prat Dave. Anyway. For all practical purposes your sister is snogging a commodities trader called Julian, whom she met at some wine-bar in the City and dragged along here. It’s a put up job, you pillock.”

He eyed her for a moment, then he ran his hands through his hair, a ragged, harassed gesture that made her want to ditch the party, ditch the investigation and snatch him off to bed for some heavy duty TLC. His voice, when he spoke again, sounded subdued, almost pleading.

“Look, when Sherlock told me he was planning to turn up to the party in disguise I expected something a bit less conceptual. Maybe something like a false beard –”

Their eyes met. The same thought hit them both simultaneously. John held his self-control a bare split second longer than Sarah. Then they were clinging to each other, giggling like smutty teenagers, rocking back and forth, tears running down their cheeks, helpless with the hilarity of it all.

“Well, it’s nice to see the hosts are enjoying the party.”

Sherlock, his arm around Harry, who looked as if she needed the support, emerged from the flat. Sarah laid her hand on John’s arm; warning, restraining. He tensed beneath her grip, but managed by a heroic effort to remain silent until the unmistakeable sound of the street door clicking shut, three stories below, told them they were once more alone on the stairwell.

“What the bloody hell do the pair of them think they’re doing?”

“Well, in the case of at least one of them, royally winding you up.”

“Oh, Harry’s always been like that. Ever since we were kids.”

“I didn’t –” The sharp beep of John’s phone, announcing an incoming text, distracted her. He read it, rolled his eyes heaven-ward, and passed it across to her.


“You’d better withdraw what you said earlier,” John said. “We obviously are having a random outbreak of 1887. Either that, or aliens have abducted my flatmate.”

“Better brace ourselves, then. Traumatised aliens, incoming, five-four-three-“

The phone beeped again. This time, she leaned over to read it at the same time as John.


“Now that’s Sherlock. Random, demanding and inconvenient. Well, better jump to it.”

“Oh, let him sweat a bit.” John’s eyes sparkled. “It’s my party, and I’ll snog if I want to. C’mere.”

In John’s pocket a succession of increasingly frantic beeps sounded, but for some minutes both of them were far too preoccupied to pay them any attention whatsoever.

“Awfully sorry to interrupt, Inspector,” Sarah muttered. “Just needed my laptop to check something.”

She advanced on the wardrobe. Inspector Lestrade and the dark-haired Mancunian, whose name she had forgotten, sat awkwardly upright beside each other on the edge of the bed, plainly waiting for her to grab whatever she needed and go. Briefly, she wondered if “turns people into teenagers for the evening” was the actual surprise in the sausage-tomato-cheese thing.

She pulled the laptop from its place of concealment amid a mess of old shoes and waterproofs and fled to the comparative safety of the kitchen.

Before even the name Farintosh appeared, she knew she had the right story. ANONYMOUS TEXTS SPARK MURDER HUNT the headline blared. For once, the story lived up to its billing. Over recent days Peoria Police Department had been bombarded by texts, source unknown, drawing their attention to a derelict house in their district. At first, no doubt, they had written the writer off as a crank. As the information became more detailed, and the tone escalated from pained to insulting, they grudgingly sent a squad car round to give the place a once-over. And, in a shallow grave in a corner of the cellar, they had found the skeleton of a middle-aged woman.

At the bottom of the page was a link to an update, yesterday. FORMER BARTONVILLE TEACHER MAY BE MYSTERY CORPSE. She clicked.

“A gold bracelet with the initials ‘VAF’ may hold the clue to a murder victim’s identity, police confirmed. High school teacher Victoria A. Farintosh lived for ten years at the property where the remains of a woman were found earlier this week. Although believed to have returned to her family in England, no records of Ms. Farintosh show her in the Peoria area since the end of the 1992-3 school year, when she quit her job due to ill-health. Police ask anyone with knowledge of Ms Farintosh’s whereabouts after July of 1993 to contact them.”

Sarah started to read down the comments. The first poster waspishly enquired if the corpse had been spotted revolving. His own high school English teacher would certainly have turned in her grave at a newspaper gratuitously dangling its participles in her vicinity. This, predictably, opened the floodgates. As well as passing on a slew of anecdotes about the missing teacher, posters seemed to have declared open season on everything from the evils of the passive tense to the iniquities of the decision in Brown v. Board of Education. The comments section had hit seven pages in less than 24 hours, and still seemed to be going strong.

In the time-smoothed euphemism of many a harassed head-teacher, Victoria Farintosh must have possessed “A larger than life personality”. Or, as a commenter observed, more trenchantly, “You never told Miss Farintosh the dog ate your homework. She’d have slit it open, just to check.”

Amid all the smoke, though, there were one or two tantalising licks of flame. Take, for example, the affair Sarah mentally dubbed, “the curious case of the Key lime Pie.”

So far as she could tell, Victoria Farintosh’s last public appearance had been at a pot-luck supper for the Parent-Teacher Association. It seemed to have been a memorable event; at least three people mentioned it. However, the only hard fact Sarah could gather about the evening was that Victoria Farintosh had snubbed someone’s special whipped cottage cheese pineapple De-Lite in favour of someone else’s Key lime pie. Cue long, bewildering and acrimonious detour into whether people who made themselves ill by unhealthy living should be drummed out of teaching, including a cross-fusillade of insults which may have made sense to the people hurling them but were absolutely incomprehensible to outsiders.

She closed down the computer and sighed. The odds on two people with the same bizarre surname dying suspiciously, even fourteen years apart, and the deaths not being connected had to be astronomical. No doubt Sherlock – and where the hell had he sloped off to, anyway? – had it all worked out already. But she was damned if she could see what was going on.

Her phone beeped.


“No, it bloody isn’t, fancypants,” she said aloud, somewhat to the surprise of a couple of random party-goers who had strayed into the kitchen. Catching up her drink, she made tracks to the living room.

Here the party had thinned down to manageable proportions. Inspector Lestrade and his Mancunian had re-emerged; John seemed to have latched onto them as protection from Dave from Cambridge, who was mooching sulkily, alone in a corner. The three of them were dissecting the Sri Lankan opening attack with animation while demolishing any of the canapés within reach. It didn’t seem the moment to break the news that dead Farintoshes were multiplying like rabbits.

Heather patted the sofa cushion beside her. “Hi. Give the kitchen a break for a bit. Let’s have a proper catch-up. What have you been doing since Deathcon? I hadn’t realised it was you who found Professor Farintosh until John told me, earlier. What an awful shock for you!”

Interested heads turned. A significant percentage of the crime fiction fans had hung on to the end of the party. Besides Heather and Dave, she recognised Alice, an American grad student from the LSE; Andy, who was a BNF in the paranormal end of crime fiction and Verity, who wrote BDSM epics in the country-house cosy genre.

“Well, less for me than for someone without medical training, I expect,” Sarah said. “I mean – don’t get me wrong – it’s still a shock, but you get used to it.”

“Still,” Andy said, taking a swig from his beer bottle, “what are the odds on someone dropping dead on their way back from a crime fic convention? I’m surprised the forums aren’t awash with conspiracy theories already. Though I suppose it was something boring and obvious?”

The invitation to indiscretion was naked in his voice, as also in his raised eyebrow and sidelong look at her. Beyond him she could see John, head up and listening intently.

At last. On to the main business of the evening.

Sarah smiled. “Patient confidentiality doesn’t end with death, I’m afraid.”

Andy made an explosive sound of disappointment. “Oh, honestly! When Professor Farintosh was the biggest oversharer of personal information in the known universe? She was never off the medical boards, bitching about what her doctor had got wrong this time or tearing someone a new one for making suggestions about diet or weight. Like at Dalescon three years ago. Someone said, ‘Ought you be having that?’ when she helped herself to chocolate fudge cake, and she gave them this absolutely frozen look and said, ‘I’ve been managing this condition since I was 12. Kindly assume I know more about it than anything you might have gleaned from Doctor Wikipedia.’ “

“Oh, God. Key lime pie.” It was only when Sarah caught Heather’s startled glance that she realised she’d spoken aloud.

But that was in another country, and besides, the wench is dead.

The faintest flicker of light began to dawn.

Dave ceased mooching and flung himself down onto the rug. “I was expecting to see that bloke Sherlock here.”

“Not if he doesn’t want you to.” John’s tone was bland. “Master of disguise.”

“Yup,” Sally Donovan said, “Time for the bleeding big reveal. I am Sherlock. And I claim the last slice of that sausage cheese thing.”

“Oh, I’m Sherlock,” the Mancunian announced, getting into the spirit of the thing. “But I’m vegetarian, so help yourself to the sausage surprise anyway.”

“Sorry,” Lestrade said, not sounding it. “But I am Sherlock. And John and I just finished it between us.”

“What, you actually ate it? All?” Sarah said, unguardedly.

“Definite proof you aren’t Sherlock,” John said. “If you were, I wouldn’t have. With you, I know it’s just tomato puree.”

Dave snorted with disgust, but fortunately at this moment his phone pinged and he retreated into a corner and started texting away, jabbing his thumbs with demented energy.

Andy stretched out. “Well, may Marina Farintosh rest in peace. Wherever she’s fetched up. And, if the worst’s come to the worst, at least that was a woman who never backed down from a good old flamewar.”

“Well, except the vampirevictoria kerfuffle last year,” Alice said.

“Vampirevictoria?” Sarah’s adrenaline spiked. Three months ago, before she had met John and, through him, Sherlock, Sarah had been able to believe in coincidence. It seemed so long ago, like the time when one still believed in Father Christmas and in bears who lurked in the bedroom cupboards, ready to eat you for putting a toe out of line.

Probably Sherlock could prove to you the bears were real, too.

Alice shrugged. “Poster on one of the Chandler comms. Not a sock, whatever Farintosh said –” As if by association of ideas she reached into her bag, pulled out a heap of red and black knitting, and began working competently away. “But then, you know what Farintosh was like about pseuds.”

The whole fandom contingent groaned in unison. Either on-line or face-to-face, they had all heard Farintosh’s opinion that someone who was afraid to put their own real name to their opinions had no business being on the internet at all.

“So what happened?” John asked, blessedly on the ball.

Alice’s needles clicked. “Vampirevictoria posted a fic to the comm. For Farintosh’s birthday. And Farintosh freaked out. That’s how it began, anyway.”

Sarah’s head jerked up in sudden interest. She caught John looking at her and gave a tiny nod in his direction.

Alice knitted on, serenely. “Of course, it didn’t stop there. You know what they say about tiny fandoms being the wankiest.”

“But what the hell had vampirevictoria done? Confused chan with curtainfic?”

“Nope. Written classic noir. With a twist. You thought it was Marlowe pov, right until you hit the reveal. He wasn’t the narrator, after all. It was the corpse. Buried beneath an empty house somewhere in the midwest. Describing its own murder.”

“Wow,” Andy said appreciatively. “Anyone gifted me something like that, I’d have offered up my first-born.”

“You’d think, right? Anyway, it was a gift, for Chrissake. But Farintosh was all over the comm like a rash the moment it was posted. Demanding IP addresses, threatening to TOS the site for harassment; you name it. One of the mods told me that if anyone was unhinged in that scenario, it sure wasn’t vampirevictoria. After all, no-one’s going to pass Cyberstalking 101 if she can’t even get the target’s birthday right.”

“You what?” Sarah said, unguardedly.

“Well, the fic went up some time in June, but Farintosh’s birthday, apparently, wasn’t till about Thanksgiving.”

John’s eyes met hers, just for a second. Sarah felt sure that they were both hearing the same voice in their heads – and wasn’t that wrong on so many levels.

Even you must appreciate the significance of an apparent five month error in something so elementary as a birthday?

Unfortunately, the ability to pose Sherlock’s questions for him didn’t appear to carry with it the ability to draw his conclusions.

She shook her head as if trying to shake water from her ears. The laptop was still in the kitchen and Google was her friend.

She got to her feet and, by way of camouflage, scooped up the empty sausage surprise dish.

“Can I get anyone anything?”

There was a vague mutter of refusal; most people seemed sated, sleepy; the party winding down. The kitchen was empty, a litter of empty canapé trays and abandoned glasses. It occurred to her that perhaps she should make a start on the washing up. There was something about the steady soaping of plates which created an almost trance-like state of mind. Perhaps something would bubble up in the dishwater.

No. Google first.

She topped up her glass from the Chianti Sally Donovan had brought and let its smoky richness travel slowly over her tongue. Sally hadn’t lied; it was a particularly fine wine. She must have gone to some trouble to select it. Sarah let her mind wander, wondering what it was about Sherlock that somehow forced people to try harder. Even if they were only trying to bring off a joke at his expense. Probably simply the challenge of trying to win an acknowledgement that one had at least made the effort to keep up.

Her mobile phone lay on the table near the laptop. Something wrong about that picture; she forced her mind back to the last time she’d used it. Surely she’d left it on the window-ledge? She compressed her lips, and hit “recents”. Nothing there; the last was John, ringing to say he’d left the lab. No guest opportunistically dialling Australia, or even a local mini-cab firm, then. Someone being helpful. Tidying up.


She weighted it in her hand for a moment, and then began to text. WHEN WAS VICTORIA FARINTOSH’S BIRTHDAY? She paused, thought, and hit send.

It pinged almost instantly.


“And?” she demanded of thin air. The phone pinged again.


She resisted the opportunity to toss it against the wall, and slid it into her pocket instead. Next time she got a chance, she’d drop it into her handbag. Better not leave it lying around, even if no-one had rung Australia on it this time.

So. Google.

As Alice had said, the Chandler fandom was tiny; finding the principal on-line comms and checking the archives for June last year took no time at all. It did not, though, produce a copy of the story. The various links she turned up were all dead. Vampirevictoria had deleted her journal; hardly surprising given the torrent of vilification which had poured over her from the moment of posting her fic. Not just from Farintosh herself; she seemed to have a couple of devoted supporters who were, presumably, in the blissful honeymoon period described by Harry, proud of being exceptions. Sarah wondered, idly, whether the Professor’s death had arrived in time to save them from crushing disillusionment.

No-one could accuse Alice of having exaggerated the scale of the imbroglio. Even given a miniscule fandom, it hard managed to score lockdowns, cross-allegations of trauma-triggering, comment deletions, internet lawyering, mass-defriendings, flounces and even a (somewhat incompetent and half-hearted) pseudicide. All in the space of three or four days.

Which, of course, gave Sarah an obvious next place to look. Fandom_wank did not let her down; she found a screen-cap of the fic. In full.

Sarah gulped. Sherlock must gone through this same process, doubtless faster, days ago. And that gave an insight into Sherlock’s online habits for which, she felt, the world was not yet prepared.

She read the story. Then she read it again.

It was the kind of house that said ‘family’. On summer Sundays, young married couples dawdled past in their Chevys and Fords, looking first at the house and then back at each other. Their eyes met, heavy with unspoken promises. “When Uncle Jim’s inheritance comes through.” “When I get that next promotion.”

It was a house built to have a tree-house in the old elm in the back yard and a basketball hoop above the garage door, a house meant to glow with pumpkins at Halloween and exhale cinnamon and cloves at Thanksgiving, to ring with young voices and the ceaseless pounding of flying feet.

It was the sour, sterile house to which two spinster sisters returned one night from a pot-luck supper down at the well-lit High School, the full moon rising above the trees.

It was the house one sister left before dawn broke, carrying twenty-five thousand dollars and a new name. In Reno, an unlicensed plastic surgeon with Mob connections would sell her the face to match.

And it was the house the other sister would never leave, not until the day of Judgment, when the trumpet shall sound and the dead shall be raised, incorruptible.

And so on.

Sarah exhaled. She had bookmarked the pages from the Peoria Star-Journal and could, if need be, compare the specifics. But there was no need. This, she knew, was not fiction.

The kitchen door opened.

“We thought we’d give you a hand with the washing up.” Heather’s arms were full of crockery. Behind her Dave hovered.

“Honestly, there’s no need –” Sarah sprang to her feet, closing her browser on instinct.

“I think there is.” Heather divested herself of her burden in the sink. “You’ve just been left to get on with it; it’s absolutely ridiculous. Isn’t it, Dave?”

He nodded, shuffling forwards, looking so awkward Sarah wondered if anyone had ever expected him to carry out any domestic duties in his entire life.

Afraid if he volunteers to do the washing-up, everyone will think he’s gay, I expect. She snorted, struck by a sudden, amused thought. Well, whatever it is with Sherlock and house-work, I think we can certainly eliminate that possibility.

“it’s been such an interesting evening,” Heather continued brightly, back-heeling the kitchen door shut.

“Um – glad you thought so.” Unfairly, she remembered that Heather didn’t drink, and spared some completely unreasonable annoyance for the advantage that gave her in being chirpy and with-it at this stage of affairs. There was something wrong about it; wrong on a deep and fundamental level.

And then Heather had her hand round her throat and Dave was reaching down and had a small, deadly and utterly familiar item pressed against the bare skin of her side, beneath her untucked shirt, and realised that “wrong” didn’t even begin to cover it.