Sherlock wasn't scared of John's clients. Astor, a chubby teenager with a penchant for board games and cannibalism, flipped over a card with a candy cane in the center and slapped the table.
"Off you go," she said, moving his piece back several spaces with a medicated giggle, "Aaaand I win! Got time for a second round?"
He glanced through the pebbled glass, John rising from his desk and shoving an arm through his coat. "Sorry, maybe tomorrow."
She smiled, "Better luck in the next game!" and left him to sweep the cards back into the Candyland box. He didn't mind. Somewhere behind the braces was a child clever enough to murder five classmates over the course of a year, convincing everyone they had been accidents right up to the day she arrived at the hospital for food poisoning and puked up a toenail, and he'd slowly been replacing her anti-depressants with sugar pills. In two weeks she'd be completely weened. Imagine the conversations they'd have then.
Flipping off the light, John locked his office and sank into the bench beside Sherlock. "Sally called, they've asked us round for dinner."
Sherlock sniffed. After his last case blew up, Mycroft ordered them to stay under the radar and appointed John as general physician for Whitling-by-the-Sheve (or as Sherlock liked to write in his return address, Whimpering-by-the-Sea). It would have suited him-sparsely populated enough for star-gazing, the docks full of bearded sailors with tales both real and imagined-if not for the constant social engagements.
John looked over. "You don't want to go."
Sherlock made a non-committal noise and John said, "Look, we've got a whole busload of convicts coming in on Tuesday for tuberculosis, that'll be fun won't it?"
Sherlock crossed his arms. "I need to work."
His voice carried and the women behind the front desk frowned at John. John knew he shouldn't cave, like pacifying a screaming child with candy so the other shoppers would stop staring, but he put his hand on Sherlock's and said, "I have an errand actually. I was going to put it off til morning, but if you'll drop me off at Sally's first..."
Sherlock turned his head the barest fraction. "What kind of errand?"
For answer, a young nurse dropped an arm-full of prescriptions into a basket and shrugged into her raincoat. "G'night, I printed out directions for you. I'll call once exams are over."
"Thanks dear," said John, waving her out and then returning Sherlock's level gaze, "What, she's the intern."
"Soooo," said John, stretching out the word like taffy, "She gets all the weird stuff. Nasty bites, things turning colors they oughtn't..."
"If you'd looked at how Mrs. Miller sat in her chair, you'd see she has a history of urinary tract infections, the bacteria of which causes a chemical reaction with the plastic in her catheter, which is why you have a gallon of purple piss in your lab."
John coughed, not taking the bait. "Anyway, she also does home deliveries for all the convalescents, nips round and explains how to take their new meds or sees if they've had side effects from the old ones. You're one white coat short of a pharmacist, you'd be perfect."
They walked to the car. All the women had left, leaving them framed against a horizon split by distant thunder clouds, and John pulled Sherlock by his lapels, his face very close. "Come on Sherl it's late, and I'm tired. Don't you want to be tired with me?"
Sherlock took John's hands, warm, chapped from constant washing. Working hands. "I won't take long."
It was a quiet drive. Farmland stretched to either side, wood fences zigging across the pasture like sutures, trunks of moonlight piercing the orchards. Firing up his first cigarette in weeks, Sherlock leaned his elbow on the window to breathe in salt air and check the road markers. Three X's dotted his map. Three potentially entertaining conversations. Assuming good weather, he'd be done within an hour and back in time to complain about how awful it all was.
He was just about to cross over the county line when something caught his eye in the mirror. He turned around, the map fluttering in his right hand, and pulled the car up a gravel driveway where a man peeked from behind his kitchen window.
"Can I help you?"
Smoke curled over Sherlock's shoulder. "I was just passing and noticed your house."
The man looked over his big belly to avoid tripping a flower pot, his bare ankles red above black leather shoes, and stood beside the car to see what Sherlock was staring at. "Nice, isn't it? My granddaughter was always into princess stories, so..."
Sherlock said nothing. Several additions had been made to the house over the years, bathrooms and bedrooms and an enclosed courtyard, but jammed into the side of this ever expanding production was a tower. A red tower. Thirty feet tall with a crenelated top and an antique door that someone had marked with a black handprint, rising out of the surrounding suburb like a discarded set piece. There was nothing 'princess' about it.
"Why'd you build it?"
The owner swept a hand to encompass the house in a desultory way, as if his story had lost its' flavor over time. "When I retired I told my daughter and her kids they could move in with me, so I built a bunch of extra space. It wasn't a problem with the babies, they can bunk two to a room, but the sixteen-year-old hated having to share. Hated it."
He swept his thinning hair off his forehead. "After she died, seemed like a nice thing to do. To give her her own room."
Sherlock looked at the black handprint on the door. Too small to be the owner's, either belonging to a child or a woman with very delicate features. "How did your granddaughter die?"
The man shrugged. "Hit and run while she was walking from school. Never found the guy."
A younger female version of the owner chased a dog onto the porch, clipping its' leash to a laundry line before running barefoot back into the house. Socks came hard to some folks. "That must have eaten up your savings." said Sherlock.
"Yeah, well, there's a lot of old money in town, they chipped in for materials, even paid for the architect."
Sherlock pounced, a little too eagerly. "So the tower wasn't your idea?"
The owner seemed neither irked nor embarrassed by this question, but made his excuses to go inside. Sherlock knocked ash into his hand and watched the wind carry it away as little shadows peered from the kitchen, drawing HELLO in the fogged window. Another child playing games. Another delay before he could go home.
The first two clients lived in the historic district, a well-lit 6-by-6 block grid that had once flagged but been recently renovated when one of the locals took office and started earmarking Federal dollars for tourism. It smelled of cappuccino and tar paper. When he had finished, he came back to his parking space to find a ticket under the windshield wiper, and walked toward the police station kicking every car alarm along the way.
A crowd of revelers emerged from a hotel entrance, and as he stopped to let them by he looked up and realized it wasn't a hotel. Or rather, it was managed by one, the hotel chain's logo etched into a bronze plaque by the door, but it had once been a baroque manor house, the kind an heiress might build to throw parties and house her pet elephant. Except that now several towers poked out at random, each with the signature handprint on the door, the two styles of architecture completely at odds with each other as if the house had tried pupating into a castle and stopped halfway.
The concierge, a tired redhead with lipstick twice the size of her actual mouth, was with another customer and pointed Sherlock to an ancient phone booth across the lounge. "Call management, they'll be able to tell you more about the tours."
He flipped through brochures as she went about her work. The history was bland, the tours were a joke, Z-list ghost hunters walking from room to room with EMF readers and night vision goggles. Management might at least know who signed off on the construction.
Sherlock stood in the wooden booth, cradling the receiver to his ear and cranking the handle. "Hello?"
A hiss on the other end, as if broadcasting from across a wide canyon. "Yesssssss?"
Sherlock held the phone away for a second. He'd met some creepy hotel owners, but none in such a high-class establishment. "Hi, I was wondering if you had any information on the building's blueprints. I'm writing a paper on historical preservation and-"
"The blueprintssssssss are none of your concern. Show some ressssssspect for the dead."
Click. Sherlock looked at the receiver, then at the concierge reflected in the glass before him. In the shadows her lipstick glared black, cutting her face in half as she put the phone down and held it down as if daring him to call again. A horde of children in Ghostbuster gear ran past the phone booth with their weary chaperons, and crumpling his parking ticket into a wastebasket Sherlock made his way to the car.
Five minutes later, Sherlock was staring at flowery wallpaper, waiting for the third and final client to find her glasses. Several wedding rings tinkled on her necklace, and when she perched on the edge of her chair her stick-thin arms folded inside her nightgown like a mantis who might double in height at any moment.
She pointed to the cabinet. "I need a glass of water."
He did as she asked, running the tap and counting the prayer magnets on her fridge, pictures of angels mixed with bald children wearing oxygen masks, the long list of numbers by her phone. The old bat was connected. She drank half the water and crunched four Vicodin with her good teeth and loaded the remainder of the glass with a flask from her bathrobe, bruises bobbing over her throat as she tipped her head back.
"Who broke your jaw?"
She looked at him through her eyelashes, glass still balanced on her lips. "I fell."
"You should get it wired shut."
She set the glass down and winced, tenderly cradling her jaw between thumb and forefinger and popping it back into place. "That'd take weeks. I'd go crazy if I couldn't talk on the phone for that long."
"You know a lot of people around here?"
She held out the glass for seconds and he refilled it for her. "There's not but four hundred people in this town, all related by blood or by marriage, and I preached to every one at some point."
"Did you preach a lot of funerals?"
She wagged a bony finger at him reprovingly. "Now now, watch where you step, boy."
He snatched the pain killers from her and sat on them. She'd go for them eventually, but he had her full attention. "So these deaths, the girl in the hit-and-run, the people at the hotel, they weren't accidents?"
Her silence confirmed his question, and he pressed on. "Are you in the construction business too? They seem to go hand in hand here. Other towns wear an armband to remember the dead."
She snorted, kicking a roach trap across the linoleum until it landed in the corner with the others, some mixture of pity and laziness preventing her from tossing out the old ones. "The dead don't need armbands. The dead need their families. And most of all, the dead love holding a grudge. They got the time for it, to pick over every little thing you never gave them in life. But you give a ghost their own house, they won't bother yours. In theory at least."
Sherlock leaned in. "But why towers?"
Her eyes narrowed, two slivers of black glass taking the measure of him. Whoever she was protecting, it had gone on long enough, and reaching into the back of her mouth she pried something loose and set a gray molar on the table before him. To gauge his reaction. To see if he was as equally numb to horrors. When he did not blink she stood up and fastened her robe and led him outside.
She lived with her extended family, a rambling Victorian farmhouse with double-wide trailers behind it and a yard full of apocalyptic folk art, all painted by her. Sherlock successfully referenced each of the Old Testament warnings, and even named the non-Biblical sources for and answered the secret question buried within her gallery of tormented sinners: Who built the first tower?
Sherlock turned to her. "A lighthouse keeper?"
She said nothing, but he knew it to be true because no foghorns had sounded in all their time together. There was no better place for ghosts than a dead shipyard.
Wordlessly he gave her the pills and she crooked her finger toward the shore. "There's an island, a little undeveloped scrap about a mile out. You'd have to rent a boat from one of the fishermen."
Sherlock checked his watch. He didn't really have time for one more stop, but he squinted through the dark, willing the island to appear like a face in a developing negative. "I've never seen a light on over there. How will I find it?"
Setting both hands on the side of her face, she popped her jaw back into place again and spat blood and turned to go inside, their transaction completed. "Don't worry. She knows you're coming."
Sherlock changed in the car-flashlight, trainers, parka for the rain, taser for everything else-before renting a tugboat and steering half-blind into the icy wind. The island was a jumble of rocks with the peak disappearing into the cloud-line, supports from a ruined pier rising up where the walkway had rotted out and leaving two rows of white wooden crosses for boats to pass between. Crows circled the lighthouse. There was a key in the door and a shadow in the window waiting for him. He noted the lack of a handprint and left the door open behind him, in case he needed to leave in a hurry.
The architect was hard to spot at first, until she opened her eyes. Gray-haired in a gray dress, she blended into the rough mortar like foam on the beach, and Sherlock dripped on the floor for several seconds before speaking first. "Madame, as I understand it, you are the mind behind all those towers across the water?"
She said nothing, a gray shell affixed to the wall, but lightning flashed so that her shadow lunged at him from across the room and he took an involuntary step back. The crows laughed.
He cleared his throat. "My friend is a doctor. He helps people like you, if you would come with me to see him..."
Her eyes slid sideways as a crow strutted across the floor, shaking its' feathers and pecking at her hand. Blood welled up, but if she felt any pain she gave no sign, and petted the bird's head.
Sherlock tried a different tack. "That's a nice bird you've got there. Does it have a name? My landlady likes to feed seagulls, watch them catch bread way up in the air. Do you like seagulls?"
Suddenly a second crow appeared in the window, fat as a vulture and the wingspan to match, and circled over the architect with a fish in its' claws. She gave a whoop of delight and caught the fish in her skirts, bringing it up to her mouth with both hands and tearing the belly open in a spray of bloody mist, its' eyes gazing stupidly at Sherlock. He shuddered, but did not scream and scream and roll on the ground until he passed out. That could wait until tomorrow.
He walked up and offered her his handkerchief. "Madame, I believe there's something you wanted to tell me?"
She looked over the fish furtively, head bowed."You're not a dream."
The fish lay in ruins in her lap, the tail smacking her arm. The crows turned in the direction of her voice, expression frozen save for a lock of hair floating over her face. "I'd know if I were dreaming. The houses are never right, and I have to look at them very hard until they twist into the right shape and the people inside stop screaming."
She smiled up at him, her teeth red and wet. "Maybe we can all share the same dream some day, and then she won't be so lonely."
Sherlock swallowed hard. "She who?"
"The dreamer," she said, looking over her shoulder as if there were a third party present, then back at him, "Her lover died in the war, pushed from a tower by his own men, and every night since then she has dreamed of his death."
Sherlock inclined his head. "How trying."
The crows pecked at the fish, and she pulled a long needle from her braids and began picking its' bones out. When she had a neat skeleton on the floor, she reached into her apron for a spool of thread, and the fish spine bent under her expert fingers, forming a little archway to which she stitched fin and sinew with a crown of ribs on top and skin stretched around it. The crows looked on disinterestedly, as if she did this to everything she touched (she did).
"What is that?" he asked, as she plucked out the fish's eye and made it fall off the top of her new construction with a little "EEEEeeee" sound.
Finished, she lifted the little tower high and began pacing around the room, looking for a place to put it. "Do you like it? She built it in his memory, in the hopes that moving the tower from dream into the real world would bring her peace," she said, stopping in a corner where other such trophies lay, "But it didn't."
She kicked an old fish tower from its' spot, crushing it beneath her slipper with a "Ha!", and flung it through the open window, turning to face the wall with her arms spread across it in a wide embrace. "And lo these many years," she said, mouth agape as if whispering to someone on the other side of the wall, "She has stalked the mainland finding new deaths, building new towers, in the hope that Heaven would notice and take pity and make the nightmares stop."
Sherlock didn't say anything for a while. Tears scrolled down her withered cheek as he reached into his pocket, feeling for anything that might distract her, and pulled out a tiny square cut-out. Astor's candy cane. The architect did not understood its' meaning until he put it in her hand and took her shoulder and slowly walked her backward toward the open window. Better luck in the next game.
He expected her to shatter like glass, hard and empty inside, but the darkness swallowed her up with barely a splash. The crows left soon after, taking the fish with them, and with them gone the room appeared as if she had merely stepped out, would return any minute. Who knows. She might.
Too tired to drive just yet, he slouched inside a phone booth on the wharf and called John, the fishermen staring at his hollow expression as if something had been lost. Or gone feral. He pressed his hand to the glass until it fogged and pulled away and watched the imprint fade. He did this several times until John picked up. For when the lighthouse door had shut behind him, it was no longer blank, and he did not stay to see if that new black handprint matched his own.
"Hey John, sorry I'm late, I'll be home shortly." he said, holding up Astor's pills in the light, watching them tumble like polished stones. Each one a conversation he'd dearly miss. "I've got one more stop to make."