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Chapter 7 - The Affair of the Asphyxiated Acafan by A.J. Hall

Dave jerked his head up. “Fuck!” He turned, facing Sherlock across the full width of the kitchen. “You. But you were at the party – why didn’t you tell me who you were then?”

Sherlock’s lips curled into the thinnest imaginable smile. “Because I needed to be certain who you were. Heather, of course, I knew from the start, but establishing the real name of her confederate proved more complicated. Terribly boring, these Internet pseuds. I had both Andy and Verity as possibles, as well as you. But it didn’t take long to eliminate them.”

Dave’s tongue flicked out to moisten his lips. “Well, perhaps now we’ve got that straight, we’d better be getting on.” He gestured towards Sarah with the hypodermic. “What do you want me to do with this one?”

“You really are a very ugly little man,” Sherlock said. “But, since you ask, only one thing. One more question. This one, I assure you, Sarah will answer.”

“The question being?” Dave looked purple, swollen with anger but still keeping himself controlled, not allowing his rage to burst out. Not yet.

“Sarah, please could you tell this – idiot – my proper name?”

Adrenaline coursed through her veins; her heart was pounding so hard she thought it might burst. Sherlock stood ten feet away, Dave’s deadly little needle was close enough that she could feel the moisture at its tip against her bare skin, and she could easily still die tonight.

But not unavenged. And not alone.

She breathed deeply, to steady her nerves. “Sorry, Dave, but you should have listened to John. He told you. At the party. Master of disguise. This, I’m afraid, is the real Sherlock.”

Heather gave an alarmed little squeak. Dave looked at her with utter contempt, then back across at Sherlock. “If so, then I still come out ahead. Cut Heather’s throat. Then I don’t have to get rid of the stupid bint myself. Whereas – if I shove this needle into Sarah – things won’t go so well, your end. Fuck knows what the three of you have got going between you, but at the very least I’d have thought your mate John would prefer you not to return his girlfriend in a coma. Gives me the game, I think.”

Sherlock looked, for a moment, almost crest-fallen. He withdrew the vegetable knife from Heather’s neck, dropping it into his coat pocket. (“The lining!” a voice screamed in Sarah’s head, sounding uncannily like her mother’s.)

“Yes. It would appear so.” Something changed in his voice. “Assuming I’d been taking a hostage in the first place. As opposed to proving a point.” He turned away from Dave, reached out and cupped Heather’s chin in his right hand, looking intensely into her face. She stared back into his pale eyes, transfixed.

“Sarah gave you two extremely sound pieces of advice this evening. Once by Camden Tube, once in the car-park of this pub.”

“How the fuck did you know –”

Sherlock ignored Dave. “Take that advice. There’s a Scotland Yard car parked outside now. Get out of this building, go straight to the car and allow them to arrest you. Tell them you intend to make a statement only once you have legal representation. Your lawyers are Gold & O’Flahertie. Say nothing else.”

“Gold & O’Flahertie?”

“My landlady’s suggestion. She said –”

“Her late husband used to swear by them?” Sarah completed. Sherlock nodded.

Better warn Caroline not to instruct their US branch, then.

Heather paused, uncertain. Sarah nodded, emphatically. Go.

She nodded back – an odd, fleeting sort of goodbye – and vanished through the door.

Dave glared at him. “You haven’t answered my question. How the fuck did you know what Sarah said in the car and when she said it?”

“Two possibilities. Guess which. First, it could have been from the phone in Sarah’s pocket. That’s been connected to John for the last sixty-eight minutes. Through John, it’s been connected to Scotland Yard. Through Scotland Yard, it’s been connected to Interpol. Every port in Europe closed against you over an hour ago.” He smiled, a spare, deadly, smile. “Or it could have been because I’ve been in the boot of your car ever since you left Sarah’s flat.”

“You what?”

“You heard. It seemed like the quickest way of finding the location where you’d mixed the taipoxin into the insulin. After all, I couldn’t be sure whether you’d actually acquired a taipan. It’s one of the deadliest snakes on Earth; we wouldn’t want it escaping into Wanstead. Or anywhere else, for that matter.”

Despite herself, Sarah let out a squeak of horror. “There could be a poisonous snake loose on the premises?” The skin between her shoulder-blades twitched; her ears started to pick up odd, swishing sounds from remote corners of the room.

Sherlock shook his head. “No. Trust me. I checked. Found this.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out the remains of a white Jiffy bag. “Sent from a laboratory in Darwin. Arranged by vampirevictoria. Pity. I’d have been quite impressed if he’d actually milked a deadly snake for its venom. As it is – murder by mail-order? Lacks class.”

Dave sneered. “You seem to know a lot. So you posed as her and sent us the message that all was discovered, and to meet you here?”

Sherlock sounded bored. “That took you long enough. How on earth do you function with a brain so small?”

Very deliberately, making sure she could see his every movement, Dave raised the hypodermic vertically, once more making a business of clearing air from it. “Not as small as Sarah’s will be in a couple of minutes. Do you really want me to follow through on that?”

“Curious thing to use, for a kidnapping, a hypodermic full of insulin.” As ever, Sherlock’s voice sounded detached, arrogantly in control. “I’ve had over an hour to listen to your threats, and I still haven’t been able to sort out one point. Perhaps you could enlighten me? I’m thinking of the curious business about the smell.”

“What smell?” Dave leaned over her, as if selecting the precise millimetre of flesh for his injection. “I can’t smell a fucking thing.”

“Precisely. That was the curious business,”

The fugitive sense she’d had earlier, of something subtly wrong about the whole business, rushed back with renewed force. Now, though, Sherlock’s hint and ten years of clinical practice crystallised into one moment of total certainty.

The unforgettable smell of insulin. Band-Aid laced with menthol. No smell here. Not all that time in the car, not now. No smellno insulin. A bluff. All along.

She shifted her weight, rocked the chair on its rickety legs, hurled herself and the chair together down upon Dave, down upon his hypodermic, yelling defiance as she went.

It hurt like fuck. The needle raked down her side in an awkward, jagged tear as she brought Dave down. He clawed out at her, grabbing for her throat and holding on until her blood roared in her ears, black clouds danced on the edge of her vision and she thought her lungs might burst. But nothing else. Nothing else.

Dimly, she felt Dave’s grasp on her throat being broken, forcibly; could breathe again. The duct tape on her wrists parted under the swift slash of a knife-stroke.

When the world came right side up she was still attached to the chair’s remains by her ankles. Sherlock straddled Dave, pinning him face-down to the black and white tiles of the kitchen floor with his knees. Dave’s right arm hung at a contorted, wrong angle that experience told her meant a dislocated shoulder.

Sherlock held out a wrecked hypodermic, just below her nose. “Your property, I suspect. From your emergency kit. Smell it, taste it if you like. But there’s nothing worse than tapwater in it. London tapwater, granted.”

She managed a small, weak grin. “Oh, shit.”

“Quite so. Been through a few alimentary canals, no doubt. But quite safe. At least –” he gave her an odd, complicit, somehow strangely reassuring angular smile. “I’ve had worse in my veins. And I’m still here.” He fiddled on the floor for a moment, then tossed her the vegetable knife. “Free your feet. By the way –” He paused for a moment, then spoke fast, as if he had to get something past his vocal cords before they noticed. “You were magnificent. In the car-park. And right. In every single particular. Absolutely right.”

Dave groaned beneath him.

Sarah’s eyes dropped to Dave’s shoulder. “I need to reduce that, before the swelling gets too bad –”

“Don’t let that bitch touch me –” Dave choked out.

Sherlock leaned forward, pressing him down into the cold floor, apparently indifferent to whether he was leaning on the bad side. “She’s got two older brothers, both rugby players. She reduced her first dislocated shoulder when she was fifteen.”

Two days past her sixteenth birthday, actually, and she’d never publicised the fact, the rugby club in question having understandable concerns about whether its insurers might take the matter badly.

“I don’t care. How can you expect me to trust her?”

“Given you’ve spent the best part of the last two hours trying to convince her you either planned to kill her or give her permanent brain damage, it’s a mystery to me, too. But you’re as safe in Sarah’s hands as in those of the next doctor. In fact, given who the next doctor is, I strongly recommend you settle for Sarah.”

Reluctantly, Dave nodded. Sherlock, eying him warily, the vegetable knife to hand, allowed him to rise, and then caught his upper body from behind, holding him upright.

“Look over my shoulder,” Sarah instructed, and seized his arm. Dave gasped, as the shoulder went back in with one quick, experienced, effective twist-and-shove, and she dropped her grip, oddly reluctant to remain in physical contact with him an instant longer than needed.

“I should make a sling –”

There came a flurry of agitated barking, from somewhere close at hand. A door at the far end of the room burst open. John stood outlined in it.

“Sarah! Get the hell out of here. The place is wired; it’s going to go up any minute.”

Something grabbed at her collar, spinning her round, choking her. Dave, white with pain, his eyes small and narrow and – she realised – quite, quite mad.

“Well, let it blow. Let it take us all up together. What have I got to lose?”

Even though he was injured, his grip felt impossibly strong. She reached for his wounded arm, trying, somehow, to disable him, but he held her off, his foot scrabbling for her ankle, trying to force her off-balance.

Horribly loud, a gunshot sounded. Dave’s grip went slack, his body fell away from her, endlessly, as if in slow motion, half his head blown away.

“Sarah! Run!”

She turned, fumbled with the door handle, and ran; out into the cold and damp of the carpark, across the wasteland behind the pub, stumbling on rough ground, her only thought escape. Behind her the sky blossomed in flame; a vast roaring rose up. The air solidified like invisible concrete.

“Shockwave,” she thought with some last flicker of sanity, and was thrown forwards into blackness.

Something was licking her face. Something, indeed, was making a very thorough attempt to exfoliate her face by tongue power alone. While making excitable yapping sounds; probably quite loud but reaching her eyes as if through a muffling blanket of cotton wool, like after a bad plane descent, before one’s ears popped back to normal.

“Well done, Jenny, good girl. Very good girl. Clever girl.” An unfamiliar voice, but warm, friendly. On her side. She cracked open her eyes, just a fraction, as a beam of torch light swung across her face and she whimpered in protest at the sudden, stabbing glow.

“Sorry. OK, try again now.”

Very cautiously, she opened her eyes again. The torchlight made a circle of light on the rough ground, carefully aimed away from her. A man in dark, nondescript outdoor clothes was leaning over her. The dog – a spaniel of some sort – bounded around them with an odd, three-legged, lurching movement; off-balance, minus a front paw.

The man stood up straight, cupped his hands round his mouth and shouted, over into the distance, towards where she could now see the blue flashing lights of police cars, the glow of flames from the wrecked pub and toy figures running purposelessly about, like ants.

“Major Watson! Over here, sir.” He turned back to her. “Any damage?”

She sat up, moved cautious fingers over bits of her body. The side into which Dave had jabbed the hypodermic needle was a mess, and would be hellishly bruised tomorrow. She didn’t like the way her left ankle felt; not broken, probably not sprained, but she’d given it a pretty bad wrench, nonetheless; she’d probably recommend ibruprofen and keeping weight off it for a couple of days if someone showed up with that at the clinic. Her hearing seemed to be clearing already. All in all, not bad. She would, definitely, live.

That thought, after the last two hours, made her feel light-headed.

She looked up at the man with the dog and extended a hand. “I’m mostly OK, thanks very much. I’m Sarah, by the way.”

The hand that took hers felt surprisingly narrow; the palm edge rough under her touch, the man’s grip firm, but uneven. Missing at least two fingers, though she resisted the temptation to look.

“Simon. And this is Jenny. Best and brightest member of the British Army ever to serve in Helmand Province. Softest thing on earth, aren’t you, Jen?”

The dog bounded up to her. She extended her knuckles for her to sniff; then, friendly relations having been established, opened her hand and began to stroke her ears.

The dog luxuriated under the caress, lifting her head so she could be tickled under the chin, her expression that of a person who has done something remarkably clever and is pleased to see someone having the good sense to acknowledge the fact.

It was an expression Sarah had seen rather frequently over the last couple of months. Albeit not on a spaniel.

She giggled. And then, abruptly, remembered the explosion. “What about John? Sherlock? What happened?”

“The Major’s fine – at least, he will be soon as knows you got out OK. He was in a state before. Haven’t seen him that worked up in a long time. Had a right go at that tall plonker in the coat – that’d be Sherlock, I take it? I’d like to see what his eye looks like in the morning. Nicest straight left I’ve seen since Prince Naz retired.”

“Golly,” Sarah said appreciatively. She probably ought – no, she probably would – volunteer to take a look at the damage in due course, and make appropriately disapproving noises about mindless violence and testosterone-fuelled idiocy while patching it up. But, whatever Professor Farintosh might have said, there was something distinctly – flattering – about having inspired one’s boyfriend to take a swing at his best mate. Especially when – wet liberal instincts aside – the self-absorbed idiot so clearly deserved it. Just now and again. For his own good. Georgette Heyer, she thought, would have understood her emotions perfectly.

Another voice broke in.

“Simon! Where the hell – oh, thank God. Sarah. You got out safe. Thank God.” And she found herself crammed against John’s chest in a frantic ecstasy of flurried kisses, hands all over the place and – her own name, repeated over and over.

With understated sensitivity, John made sure she sat behind the police driver of the Touran on the way home, the opposite side from the outward journey. She’d been offered a seat in the squad car, but baulked at the idea of travelling with Heather, even with Heather handcuffed to a WPC. Less than a fortnight ago they’d been cheerfully bitching over breakfast about Heather’s impossible room-mate. Since then Heather had murdered that room-mate, kidnapped Sarah at hypodermic-point and taken her off to torture in a disused and booby-trapped pub. That sort of thing really made you re-evaluate your friendships, whether on-line or off.

John murmured soothingly into her hair, encouraging her to rest her head against his oatmeal jumper. She felt guilty for having teased him about it two days ago. It felt like the essence of stability against her cheek. Sherlock sat on his far side; long, and distant and detached, his right eye swollen and angry.

The car wove through London’s night streets. The rain had ceased, but the shiny tarmac and the dwindling puddles reflected back the night-time glow of orange street-lights, neon signs of kebab shops or mini-cab firms, restless traffic lights.

Sherlock’s right arm stretched along the seat back, just above John’s shoulders. A sudden shaft of light from outside caught the soft wool fringe of his scarf, folded into a pad beneath John’s bad shoulder at just the angle Sarah would have recommended, had she had space and time to think of it. It occurred to her that throwing a straight left with considerable force was not recommended for someone with less than 90% mobility in that joint and lingering, deep-seated muscular damage. And it took a certain sort of mindset for the recipient of a punch to be so attentive to the puncher’s welfare afterwards.

She felt obscurely rebuked; then, far from obscurely manipulated. She moved her head, just enough to look across John into Sherlock’s face. His eyes were hooded, his lips tightly compressed. The erratic alternation of light and shade from the streets outside made it hard to read his expression, but she thought he seemed – strangely deflated, like a child who had brought off a practical joke and only in the aftermath realised just how much trouble he was in. After a long, simmering silence, he spoke.

“Trust me. I didn’t plan for that to happen.”

“I never said you planned it.” John’s voice was tight with rage. “I said, you’re the bloody deductive genius; you should have guessed it might happen. And then bloody well stopped it happening.”

Sarah stirred. “That’s – not quite fair.” She yawned. “After all, if I hadn’t been stupid enough to leave the wardrobe unlocked after I went to get my laptop, that idiot Dave wouldn’t have got my hypodermic in the first place. And if I’d known it was my hypodermic I’d have known it couldn’t have had insulin in it, because I don’t put any in the bag, and anyway I’d keep it in the fridge if I needed it.”

“Without the hypodermic, Dave would have used a knife.” Sherlock’s voice contained no discernable emotion. “Obviously not your vegetable knife, since I’d already stolen it, but presumably your other kitchen tools are equally sharp.”

For some reason, Sarah thought of the long, narrow-bladed knife she used for fish-filleting, and shivered. John tightened his grip and shot Sherlock what, even given the dim light, she could see was an epically filthy look.

“John, I simply could not expect Dave to be stupid enough to take Sarah hostage. How am I supposed to account for the thought processes of bewilderingly irrational people?” Sherlock’s voice sounded oddly uncertain. In someone else, she might have considered it defensive; almost pleading.

“You could start by not sending them ‘All is discovered; flee at once’ texts in the first place,” John said. “At least, not in the middle of a party.”

“Dave’s overcomplicating matters saved her, in the end.” Sherlock’s face was coldly angular in the reflected light from a small parade of shops outside the window as they stopped at a red light. “Blame me for not foreseeing that they would take her hostage at all, if you must – but what happened in the pub was a calculated risk.”

“That’s exactly what I mean.” John, plainly, had no intention of letting the topic drop. “A calculated risk with Sarah’s life. Suppose they’d brought the hypodermic with them?”

“I didn’t imagine it was that sort of party. And, trust me, I do know the difference.”

There was a speaking silence in the car’s interior. After a while, Sherlock shrugged.

“Look: I had no reason to believe they ever owned a hypodermic in the first place. They never needed one. The beauty of this conspiracy was that every element of it existed, as far as possible, independently of every other element, and none led back to the source.”

“Vampirevictoria? Or whatever her real name was?” John’s tone made it not quite a question; more an accommodation. Tension still radiated from him, where he held her, close against his chest, but the intense fury had abated. He would not, she knew, ever apologise for blacking Sherlock’s eye (And nor should he, insisted the part of her mind which wore sprigged muslin, admired the look of a man’s legs in Hessians and knew all the nuances of exercising the choice to delope). But, having made his point, he was too generous to maintain it past the point of cruelty.

Sherlock was, she thought, a very all-or-nothing person; there were doubtless reasons for that. With his insistence on logic, he probably had no concept that “I’m going to kill you now, slowly and brutally” and “I will eviscerate anyone who harms a hair of your head” were emotions which could, quite reasonably, co-exist within the same person, at the same time. Not a man who seemed to have much experience with affection.

He did sound obscurely relieved when he spoke again. “Dave worked in healthcare, sourcing wholesale supplies for the NHS. Given Professor Farintosh’s internet habits, discovering which brand of insulin she used would have been child’s play. He’d come off worst in on-line arguments with her; he hated her sense of superiority and – of course – her feminism. Vampirevictoria reassured him tremendously there. After all, if another woman detested Farintosh’s views, that proved she must be the aberration.”

Dave had died tonight; his body wreckage in the remains of an exploded building. Sarah prayed to a God whose existence she barely recognised that she not yield to the temptation to say, ‘He had it coming’. Her prayers to that effect grew more intense as Sherlock detailed the steps by which Dave had been seduced into murder.

At first, vampirevictoria had drawn him in by giving flattering support to his view that Farintosh was very far from as clever as she thought she was; encouraging him to ‘teach her a lesson’ by a harmless (if shocking) strike at her medication. Just to show he could. The second half of the plot, of course, was introduced once Dave had committed himself thoroughly. “Does it have to be quite harmless?” had been Dave’s own suggestion. Though, undeniably, he’d been manipulated expertly to the point of uttering it.

“And Heather?” Sarah found, suddenly, she did want to know. She’d liked the woman, dammit; shared jokes and enmities on-line, clicked instantly at Deathcon. And there had been that odd moment of bonding in the pub, too. “And Caroline?”

Sherlock shrugged. “Vampirevictoria started canvassing Farintosh’s former students over a year ago. When I asked, Harry recalled getting a couple of emails out of the blue, asking her to contribute reminiscences of Marina Farintosh, allegedly for a book making a critical re-evaluation of Smoke and Mirrors two decades on. Harry simply swore and binned the emails. Others responded.”

“Heather said something on-line about a call for papers – oh, months and months ago. She asked one of the forums about how far you could go, until fair comment turned into libel.” She paused. “Was that what you meant, when you said who poisoned the Professor had been obvious from the first?”

They were passing a park. Sherlock’s face was in shadow, his expression unreadable.

“If the plot required Professor Farintosh to inject herself with contaminated insulin, anyone who’d had access to her personal possessions in the previous few days was a suspect. Given Farintosh acquired a new room-mate as a result of a literally incredible chain of circumstances, of course Heather and Caroline were in the frame. Tell me, is being a gullible imbecile a required qualification for the Deathcon organising committee, or did vampirevictoria somehow rig the elections?”

“The Concom didn’t want to shame someone with a hidden disability into having to share more details than they felt comfortable with,” Sarah said, a little primly.

Sherlock rolled his eyes heaven-wards. “Have you ever tried taking out an orthodontic brace in a hurry? Without its being obvious to everyone in the vicinity what you’re up to? Those instruments of torture are made almost impossible for the victim to remove. It’s a design feature.”

“Sherlock –” John began, a note of frank fascination in his voice.

“Since you ask, Mummy invested a great deal in our teeth, yes. Including several excruciating years of our respective adolescences and about fourteen cutting- edge orthodontic systems, each more irritating than the last.”

“Why did she –?”

“I kept taking them out, of course. Anyway. Irrelevant. No-one would choose an orthodontic brace as their projectile weapon of choice. And yet, in the heart of the USA – spiritual home of the dental over-intervention – the conference committee were clearly so besotted with their pop-psychological constructs of human nature that it never occurred to any of them to analyse the observable facts.”

Sarah felt a rising bubble of hilarity. “Ah, yes. The Deathcon Concom. Remind me to tell you about the great personality disorder pants-removal disco dilemma some time.”

John buried his head against her shoulder. From the convulsive movements of his torso she rather thought he had succumbed to a fit of giggles. Stress-related, no doubt.

Sherlock clicked his tongue repressively against his front teeth. Admirably straight front teeth.

“Was there really a book?” Sarah asked.

Sherlock gave the impression of choosing his next words with extreme care. “The emails came from a real publisher. A small academic press, previously best known for having published The Dynamics of an Asteroid. A work which took mathematics to such rarefied heights barely ten people in the world could follow it.”

“Ah. Not aimed at the bestseller market, then,” John observed.

The Dynamics of an Asteroid was written by one James Moriarty.”

Dead silence fell in the car. After a few moments Sarah, tentatively, broke it. “The lunatic who tried to blow you both up, a couple of weeks before Deathcon? You think he may have been connected to vampirevictoria? But – I thought he was dead.”

Sherlock shrugged. “They never found the body.”

“They never found half the swimming pool, for that matter.” John thought for a moment. “Though I seemed to be brushing most of it out of my hair for weeks.”

“Anyway, tonight leaves us with no evidence one way or the other. Once the scheme was wound up, it could run its course irrespective of further involvement from its instigator. Designed to do so, in fact.”

“But – the explosion – ” John began.

“I spoke to your friend Simon. While you were having your knuckles bandaged. In his expert opinion – and I formed the highest regard for his expertise – the countdown would have been triggered by anyone who, after a certain date, entered the correct code into the combination padlock. Had we simply broken into the pub, we would all have been perfectly safe.”

“Bastard,” John said. “Didn’t want the other conspirators returning to the scene of the crime once he’d got everything going nicely, did he?”

“Quite so. But, John – if you had no reason to suspect Moriarty’s involvement, why did you, on your own initiative, arrange to have a pair of your old Army friends with very particular skills meet you at the pub, once I’d texted you the address?”

John snorted. “I can’t imagine. You, late night assignation, deserted building – can’t think what made me go, ‘Oh, could do with trained backup. Wagtail unit, in particular. Just on the off-chance’. Anyway, they live out this way and I thought they wouldn’t mind being asked, even if it wasn’t needed. When I met him in the pub last week, Simon said he and Jenny were getting bored out of their minds on civvy street.”

“Dear God,” Sarah muttered. “Even the dogs I meet these days are adrenalin junkies. And who shot Dave, anyway? Simon?”

They both ignored her.

“Sometimes, John, you leave me gasping with amazement.”

“If it continues as a problem, I’ll prescribe something to clear your airways. Anyway, why Moriarty? Even for him, spending a year planning the murder of a dotty English don seems rather extreme. Unless he was just trying an experiment; if these people keep banging on about how much they hate each other over the internet, what would it take to make them do something about it in real life? Might work.”

Sherlock leaned forward, his fingers locked together. “Oh, while I’m sure he was delighted with how well his manipulations succeeded, Professor Farintosh was very far from a random victim. The clue to the whole thing lay in the apparently random date upon which vampirevictoria chose to post a fic which was expressed to be, ‘A birthday tribute’ to Professor Farintosh.”

Sarah and John exchanged glances.

“Well, we wondered, yes,” Sarah said. “I did think at one point it was Victoria Farintosh’s birthday, but you texted not –”

Something rose in her gullet, stifling her next words. Sherlock’s texts had prompted her kidnapping in the first place. It suddenly became very hard to breathe.

“To understand the significance of the date, you need to know the Farintosh family.” Sherlock’s cool, lecture room tones were a blessed link with another world, her own world, not this nightmare of jagged emotion and concealed treachery. She gave a tiny nod, inviting him to continue.

“James Farintosh was a Belfast man; the junior partner in his family law firm. The war broke out and he joined the Army. He met Louise at a Cambridge dance, a few months after Dunkirk. Then he was posted abroad again. She went off to do clerical work for an obscure Government office in deepest Northamptonshire. They corresponded, constantly, but by the time they finally married, in 1945, they’d been engaged for over three years, during which time they’d seen each other for a shade under a month.”

Sarah nodded. Sherlock didn’t waste words; the details would be important later.

“James and Louise settled down in Holywood, an affluent suburb of Belfast. Their first daughter, Margaret, was born in early 1946; close enough to her parents’ wedding day for neighbours to raise eyebrows. Siblings were slow in coming; Margaret had already passed her eleven-plus by the time Marina arrived. Victoria followed a bare thirteen months later. About three months after the birth, a neighbour found Louise holding the baby underwater in the bath. She intervened just in time. Louise, when asked, explained quite calmly and rationally that she’d seen the Devil looking out from the child’s eyes. She never saw any of her daughters again; she died about thirteen years later in a very expensive, very secluded nursing home somewhere in the Antrim hills.”

Outside the car windows the City flowed past, spiked with the floodlit wedding-cake beauty of Wren churches, the sly, knowing obscenity of the Gherkin, St Paul’s dome swimming serenely amid wisps of flying cloud. Sherlock’s face seemed carved from the same Portland stone.

Sarah could barely get the words out for shaking. Not fear, this time. Fury. “They committed her? For what sounds like classic post natal depression?”

Sherlock shrugged. “Not committed. A purely voluntary arrangement. Short of torture, a family of the Farintoshes’ class, in Ulster, in the 1950s would never have admitted to anything ‘mental’ in the family.” His voice curled, audibly adding the inverted commas.

“Like Harry said –” She broke off, teetering on the brink of an unforgivable faux pas.

“What?” John’s wary expression spoke volumes. Minefield.

“I gather Farintosh found fictional studies of that particular provincial, middle-class mindset fascinating. And, boringly, insisted her students did so too.” Sherlock’s blandness was almost an art-form in itself.

John looked at him with incredulity. “You were discussing Eng. Lit. with my sister?”

“Intermittently, yes. Anyway, the Farintosh girls. Margaret took on the mother role, screwing up her school work in the process. The little girls – Marina and Victoria – were alternately spoiled as motherless babes and scrutinised as potential monsters by everyone around them. James buried himself in his work.”

“God, what a nightmare,” John said.

“Quite so. In due course, each of the girls found her own way of escape. Margaret, for instance, started working with youth groups across the border, working to bridge the sectarian divide.”

“And what happened?” Sarah heard her voice, falsely bright and inquisitive. There were, after all, already two dead Farintoshes. It seemed hardly likely Margaret could have escaped the family curse.

“Met a nice boy, fell in love, got married. Moved to England. James Farintosh made his views clear about having a Catholic son-in-law from County Cork, so she and her husband moved to Sussex shortly after the wedding. Wise move; plenty of people in Belfast in 1969 had strong views about mixed marriages. But she still kept in touch with her little sisters, sending them birthday presents and so forth through a sympathetic neighbour. And then they, too, grew up and started looking for their own ways to escape.”

“Oh, God,” John said, pessimistically. “And did that go equally well?”

Sherlock shrugged. “Marina set her heart on an Oxford scholarship. Victoria, with equal single-mindedness, turned to sex. In which line, I understand, she did as least as much to bridge the sectarian divide as her eldest sister. After her own fashion.”

Sarah’s head went up. “In Belfast, early ’70s? That’s – teenage rebellion on the grand scale.”

“Quite so. She was, I think, the only genuinely brilliant one of the sisters. Marina got as far as she did on sheer hard work, a first-class memory and the good pupil’s trick of being able to predict what the examiners were looking for and dutifully deliver it. Victoria – could have been the best, in any field she chose. And what she chose was to be a bad girl.”

If one strained a point, one might almost fancy a note of admiration, not unmixed with envy, in Sherlock’s tone. The sort of way, perhaps, a very gifted amateur violinist might speak of someone in the school orchestra who had moved on to play with the Berlin Phil.

“I doubt Marina was precisely surprised when her sister told her she was pregnant. Neither of the girls could face breaking the news to their father, though. They pooled their savings, Victoria caught the Heysham ferry, and next thing James Farintosh knew, Victoria was with Margaret and her husband, at their home in Sussex.”

John and Sarah exchanged glances.

“Poor kid. We’ve had a few of those through the clinic; straight off the boat and scared shitless. Good job she had family in England to turn to; lots don’t.”

“Ye-es.” The note in Sherlock’s voice prepared her.

“Oh, God. Catholic family in England. So she didn’t – “

“Margaret, to do her justice, was fully prepared to support Victoria in whatever decision she made. There was a complicating factor, though. Margaret had just been advised – after several years of heart-break and frustration – that she was unlikely to be ever able to conceive and carry a child to term. As a result, the Moriartys –”

“The who?” Both Sarah and John spoke at once. Sherlock raised his eyebrows.

“Margaret and Patrick Moriarty, Victoria Farintosh’s sister and brother-in-law. Didn’t I make that clear?”

“Rather obviously not,” John said. “I suppose I can guess where this is going?”

Sherlock’s teeth glinted, just for a moment, as he bared them in a mirthless smile. “Yes. The Moriartys offered to adopt the child if Victoria chose to go through with it, and, after some heart-searching, she agreed. Nothing hole-and-corner; all properly arranged through one of the Catholic adoption agencies. Unfortunately – the pregnancy turned out to have unexpected complications.”

“Victoria Farintosh had Type 1 diabetes. She was – what – fifteen? Sixteen? There was a history of severe post-partum depression in the family. It was the early 1970s and NHS obstetrics were stuck in the Dark Ages.” Sarah drew a deep breath. “I doubt the complications were in the least unexpected. But I’ll bet serious money no-one chose to discuss them openly with her. At least, not while she could still change her mind.”

He made a wry half-shrug of acknowledgement. “You could be right. Anyway, the child, due in August, was born two months prematurely; touch-and-go for both mother and baby. He was hurriedly baptised – Catholic – and named for his grandfather, presumably as a gesture towards reconciliation. Margaret’s doing; Victoria was too ill to be involved. Indeed, there’s no evidence she ever saw the baby or expressed any wish to do so.”

“Named for his grandfather.” John’s voice sounded thoughtful. Sherlock continued.

“When Victoria recovered she opted for a complete change of scene. Her father’s elder brother had emigrated to the US; she went out to join his family there, finished her schooling, and, in due course, qualified as a teacher. She deliberately broke contact with Margaret and her family but continued to correspond with Marina.”

He gestured with one elegant hand, a poised, spare movement. “My first real break in the case came there. Victoria became a considerable auto-didact; Marina was happy to exchange early drafts of her papers with her, they corresponded weekly, if not more often. Every paper Marina published until her sabbatical included the acknowledgement, ‘and thanks for the insights and continued help of my sister Victoria.’ With Smoke and Mirrors the format changed: ‘Thanks to my sister, without whom these works would never have seen the light of day’. And after that - she never acknowledged her sister in any work she ever published. The conclusion was obvious.”

“Victoria killed the real Marina in America? And took her place?” John enquired. Sherlock nodded.

“Yes. Your sister picked up on it. She said, ‘She’d turned into a completely different woman.’ Harry’s an analyst; breaks in patterns are what she lives by. Probably plenty of other people spotted it – as a literary matter. But no-one actually went the extra mile and realised that she had literally come back as a different woman. Except, eventually, her son.”

“And his birthday is in June?”

Sherlock nodded. “And we still don’t know if she outlived him or not. Though, if she didn’t, I daresay we won’t be left in too much doubt for long. Ah. Home.”

The Touran drew up at the door to 221B. For a moment Sarah considered asking the driver to carry on to her own flat, her own bed.

But John looked, for a moment, so nervous, so much as if he feared the events of the evening might have caused her to ditch him altogether, that she hadn’t the heart. Anyway, the flat would be littered with the aftermath of the party, and also, she really didn’t fancy being alone there, not after this evening.

“Home,” she agreed.