Chapter Eight: Harlan Emple
Disclaimer: No money, just fun.
(Set in the middle of S3, after Kitty departs but before the finale.)
The knock at her office door is so soft that Joan thinks she must have imagined it. The honks and screeches and laughter and footfalls are a dull, unavoidable undercurrent of street noise—the biggest complaint about having an office in the basement of the brownstone.
Noise from overhead, of course, is another matter. More than once Joan has had to leave a mystified client as she excused herself, climbed up the stoop and let herself in the front door, only to see Sherlock doing some unnecessary gymnastics designed—she is certain, despite his protests to the contrary—to garner her attention.
Another knock—this time unmistakable knuckles on metal.
"Harlan!" she says, genuinely surprised as she pulls open the door. "If you're looking for Sherlock—"
Brushing past her, Harlan Emple moves quickly across the room and stands in front of the sofa. Tall and stocky, he looks more like a football running back than what he is, a brilliant mathematician.
"The Rachel B. Hanson Professor for Applied Mathematics at Columbia and the holder of the Smithfield Endowed Chair of Algebraic Geometry at Huntington Institute," Sherlock told her once. Joan had looked it up—not just his faculty page at Columbia but a definition of algebraic geometry, before she'd finally been able to think of Harlan the way Sherlock did, as a valuable irregular regular.
"I saw him already," Harlan said, his eyes darting up toward the ceiling. "He seems pretty—agitated. I thought I'd come talk to you instead."
"Oh," Joan says, squelching a grin. "He's just upset because it's his birthday. You know how it is. Hints of mortality—all that."
Harlan stares at her blankly, and after a moment, she motions for him to sit. He settles onto the sofa with the tentative grace Joan often sees in tall men—as if they have learned to move slowly in a world that is a little too confined.
"So," she says after the silence stretches on a beat too long, "did Sherlock ask you here?"
Harlan rubs his palms on his knees and shakes his head. "Uh, no. I came to see him. About a problem at work. Something came up that I want him to….investigate."
A muffled whump from overhead. Harlan darts a glance up at the ceiling.
"Do you want to tell me about it?"
Another whump, this one louder.
"Do you need to check on…anything?" Harlan asks.
"You said it was something at work? At the university?" Joan says.
Harlan shoves his glasses back up the bridge of his nose. "My exam in advanced calculus went missing about a week ago. Stolen, I'm pretty sure. I had a hard copy with me during the in-class review, and when I unpacked my briefcase later, it was gone."
Joan takes a breath and sits back. Just as well that Sherlock is too preoccupied to talk to Harlan today. He would have no patience with this sort of problem. "So make out a new exam," she says. "That should be easy enough to do."
Harlan lets out a blurp of exasperation. "Too late. I didn't discover the theft until after I gave the exam."
"Then interview the students with the best grades. Or talk to the ones whose scores are unexpectedly high."
"No, no," Harlan says, waving his hand. "I'm pretty sure I know who stole it."
Joan screws her face into a frown. "Then why—"
"One of my students stayed behind to talk to me after the review," Harlan says. "He's a weird kid. I mean, weirder than usual. Some days he's super bright—you know, his hand always in the air, answering questions before I can even ask them. Then other times he's, well, lost, or something. Like he doesn't have a clue what we are doing. Like he's never seen the stuff before."
"You think he's using drugs?"
"It would explain a lot."
"I don't understand what you want me to—"
"But there's other stuff, too," Harlan says. "Some days he comes to class dressed neatly, clean cut, his homework ready to turn in. Other days he looks like he's been on a bender all night."
"Maybe he has been. Or maybe he's mentally ill. Bipolar disorder can manifest this way."
"The strangest thing," Harlan continues as if he hasn't heard Joan, "is that he's almost like two people. Like looking in a mirror. When he parts his hair on the left, he's a math whiz. When he parts it on the right, he's a math dummy. He even writes with both hands. I asked him about it and he said he's always been ambidextrous."
Joan shifts in her seat. A noise like a slamming door echoes through the walls. "So you think this kid—"
"—this kid, Elliot Small, stole the exam. So he aced it, right?"
"That's the thing," Harlan says. "He completely bombed it. Worst grade in the class."
"Maybe you're wrong about him stealing the exam."
"I don't think so," Harlan says, crossing his arms. "I remember having it on my desk after everyone else except Elliot left the room. Then I got distracted—or something—and the next time I thought about it, it was gone. He was the only student around when it went missing."
"Well, I don't know what you can do at this point," Joan says. "You can't prove anything, and if he did steal it, it didn't help him any."
"It's just," Harlan says, leaning forward, "something isn't right. There's a mystery here."
"Have you talked to him?"
Harlan shakes his head slowly. "No, the exam was the last day of the semester. Unless he takes another math class, I may never see him again."
Despite herself, Joan feels her attention starting to wander. There's not much she can do to help Harlan—and the mystery isn't that compelling.
Unlike the mystery of what Oren's up to. She sneaks a glance at her desk where she's spread out ten different mock up invitations to her mother's 70th birthday party. Mary Watson brought them by three days ago and handed them to Joan with a "Here. Help me choose one for the printer, and then make sure your brother has the date on his calendar."
Dutiful daughter that she is, Joan hadn't protested or asked why her mother couldn't talk to Oren herself. Since her mother's visit she's called Oren multiple times, always getting his voice mail. Likewise Joan hasn't been able to get in touch with his wife, Gabrielle. Her emails and texts seem to disappear into the ether.
Oren's silence is enough to feel, if not outright alarming, then at least unusual. Dutiful son that he is, Oren calls every couple of weeks unless he's traveling in a wildly different time zone. The odds that something has happened are remote—and yet Joan keeps circling around the mystery of his silence.
Unless, of course, he's snubbing her on purpose.
"Well," Joan says, turning her attention back to Harlan, slumped forward on the sofa, "since I can't be of any help—"
"There's just this one thing," Harlan says, and Joan stifles a sigh and sits back against her chair. "That day that Elliot stayed to get help after the review? He said something that I couldn't make sense of at the time, but now I wonder if someone was threatening him somehow."
"What do you mean?"
"He said that taking the exam was probably a lost cause now that his brother was mad at him. I didn't think too much about it—like I said, he's a weird kid. But after he failed the test, I remembered what he said, and I wondered if he was being mistreated. You know, bullied or frightened by his brother. Unable to study for the exam, maybe."
"Like he had an evil twin," Joan says, her words drifting to a stop. "An evil twin. That's it."
Harlan's face scrunches into a frown. "What do you mean?"
Joan launches into a lilting exposition. "Elliot is two people. Identical twins pretending to be the same student. In high school one of my friends was a mirror twin. She and her sister looked alike, but one was left-handed and the other right handed. One was really artsy and academic; her sister was an athlete who hated school. Their personalities were completely opposite. Elliot and his twin sound like mirror twins. Maybe Elliot doesn't really understand math and he called in his twin to be his ringer. You know, to take the tests for him. Then when they had a falling out, Elliot was driven to steal the exam but he didn't understand the concepts well enough to pass."
Harlan opens his mouth to respond but before he can, a crash directly overhead rattles the windows. Both Joan and Harlan jump up and head to the door.
"Is this…normal?" he says as Joan scoots ahead of him up the steps. Instead of answering, she swings open the door and heads through the foyer to the sitting room where Sherlock lies on the floor, his ankles still encased in gravity boots, the pieces of his inversion frame scattered around him.
"Oh, good, you're here," he says, waving one arm. "I seem to have had a mishap."
For the next few minutes Joan clucks over a few scrapes and bruises while Harlan stacks the metal bar and broken frame pieces next to the wall.
"Be still," she instructs while swabbing a gash on Sherlock's shoulder. He complies—barely—but his attention keeps going to Harlan, who hovers at the edge of the action like someone deciding whether or not to put his toe into a pool.
"You have something to say?" Sherlock finally says. Harlan jumps visibly.
"Not really," he says. "I mean, I did have something to ask you, but Joan already figured out the answer."
At that Sherlock turns to look her squarely in the face.
"Turn around," Joan says, tearing another strip of medical tape and pressing it across a folded piece of gauze on Sherlock's shoulder. She rubs her finger idly across an old scar—the bullet wound from Moriarity's agent. At once his muscles become as taut as wire. "It wasn't anything," she says, adding a final piece of tape. "Not your cup of tea anyway."
"I should be the judge of that," Sherlock says, darting a look in her direction.
"Joan was really quite remarkable," Harlan says enthusiastically. Joan senses Sherlock tensing up again and she tries to catch Harlan's eye. Oblivious, Harlan recounts the story of his student and the missing exam, almost the same way he told it the first time.
"And then," Harlan says, "Joan made the most incredible deduction I've ever seen!"
"Mirror twins," Sherlock says. "Has to be."
"You heard us talking about it," Harlan says, disappointed. Sherlock snorts loudly.
'While I assure you my hearing is good," he says, slipping his arm through the sleeve of his shirt and buttoning it up, "I arrived at my deduction through logic alone. If you had been more attentive to your student's handwriting, you would have come to the same conclusion."
"Everyone has certain tells in their handwriting," Joan says. "Two different people would have two separate identifiable handwriting styles. Even if Elliot was trying to imitate his twin's handwriting, he wouldn't have been able to. At least not well enough to fool an expert."
To her surprise, Harlan lights up with a big grin. "But I'm not an expert! Not on handwriting! See, it's nice that we're a team again. All of us together—we're a complete package. You need a question about math, I'm your go-to guy. Like last week when Kitty sent me some equations to look at, I knew we were all working together again."
"Kitty? Sent you something?" Sherlock's voice is oddly flat, his expression unreadable. From where she stands, Joan sees his hand shake.
"Yeah," Harlan says. "The equations she thought were for weaponizing common household cleaners? But it was nonsense. Someone trying to make a buck selling fake information in Amsterdam."
"Amsterdam? She's there?" Again Joan sees Sherlock's hand shake—hardly more than a twitch, but she has noted and catalogued most of Shelock's ticks and twirls. This one is new.
Harlan throws his hands up. "I thought you knew. But she's not there now. Or, at least I don't think she is. She was headed to Berlin."
"Yes, of course I knew," Sherlock says, fastening his collar button and getting to his feet. "Now, if you will excuse me, I have something that needs attending to."
He heads to the steps and Harlan calls out, "Happy birthday!" Without missing a beat, Sherlock nods and disappears up the steps.
"Did I do something wrong?"
"Like I said," Joan tells him, "birthdays make him moody. See you later."
By the time Harlan exits the brownstone, a fine misty rain has started. For the first block Harlan squinches his eyes and walks at a normal pace, droplets collecting on his forehead and sliding into his ears and down his neck. The subway stop is two blocks away when the misty rain turns into a genuine downpour. No cabs in sight—the streets almost empty of them this time of day. Across the street the lights of a tiny vegetarian café beckon and Harlan dashes in and waits for an indifferent waiter to lead him to a rickety wooden table and press a plastic menu in his hand.
"Uh, I don't want to eat," Harlan says, and immediately the waiter's indifference is replaced by irritation. For one wild moment Harlan expects him to scold him, or ask him to leave. "I mean," Harlan says, backpedaling frantically, "I could get some—" He glances down at the menu and looks for something recognizable. Kale and quinoa burger? Mate cooler? Lightly sautéed radicchio with toasted sesame seeds?
He's clearly out of his element, a fish out of water—a common sensation that still surprises Harlan at odd moments.
"Uh, what do you recommend?"
The waiter's irritation softens a fraction and Harlan's heart rate slows. He hates this, how other people's anger makes him fearful. Too close to home, too much like hearing his father all over again yelling, his disappointment in his only child palpable and wounding.
Why can't you be like normal kids? Go outside and play. Stop bothering me!
Harlan's mother so long dead that his only memory of her flickers like a stuttering black and white newsreel—her smile washing over him as a benediction, her fingers smoothing back his hair.
In many ways Sherlock reminds him of his father—not in appearance or in interests or even in personality, but in the sense that both men have something coiled inside them—something so tightly tuned that they almost vibrate, his father with anger, Sherlock with some emotion Harlan has no name for. He'd tried to talk to Kitty about it when she'd contacted him the first time, shortly after she left. She'd listened and said little, but before they hung up she'd told him, "You don't have to understand him, you know, to appreciate who he is."
At one time Harlan had entertained the idea that Sherlock Holmes might be a friend, but he knows better now. Not that Harlan's had many friends in his life. Curiously, his best friend in high school hadn't liked math at all, had teased Harlan about his love for numbers. Then in college he'd met people as obsessed as he was and he felt understood for the first time—or if not truly understood, than at least recognized as a fellow oddball. It had been liberating—but lonely.
After graduating a year early, Harlan did a half-hearted stint working as a data miner for a large retail company before jumping back into academia—earning a master's degree in applied mathematics before finishing his doctorate in algebraic geometry. Those had been busy years—and reasonably happy ones, although his father's declining health had been a worry.
Still is a worry, though Harlan rarely sees his father these days. If anything, old age and two heart attacks have made his father even more unpleasant, his anger tipping into rage whenever their phone calls go on too long and their conversations drift into politics.
It's not that Sherlock is like his father all that much, Harlan thinks, taking a tentative sip of the jasmine tea the waiter sets in front of him. Perhaps it isn't his father Sherlock reminds him of so much as it is himself, brilliant obsessives stumbling over everyone's toes, never quite sure about the steps of the dance. At the end of the day lonelier for it, too.
Except that Sherlock has Joan, and more than his obvious money, more than his lumbering brownstone, more than gifted insight, what Harlan is jealous of is that relationship—the way Joan calls Sherlock out as often as she makes allowances for him. It's probably too much to hope for—someone who knows him and likes him that way, the way friends do.
"The last occupant of this cab carried a takeout of kung pao chicken," Sherlock says. "Or more likely, a take home carton of leftovers after a meal at a restaurant."
The odor is subtle enough that Watson might have missed it—no shame in admitting her olfactory receptors are not as acute as his own, though he half expects her to object to his observation. Or perhaps her objection will be based on something else—that the information is extraneous to the task at hand, the kind of random observation he's learned, through hard knocks, not to share with his peers lest he be accused of showing off.
Or perhaps she wants to spend the entire cab ride to midtown scrolling silently through her phone, her shoulder hunched just enough to obscure the screen.
The cab ride from Brooklyn to 51st Street takes 31 minutes, only five minutes faster than the train would have been—and costs quadruple the price. Watson, however, had been insistent.
"I'm not walking to the station in this rain," she said as they stepped onto the brownstone stoop and scanned for the cab she'd ordered. Normally she isn't this fussy or extravagant, but tonight she's dressed in a form fitting black dress and Christian Louboutin pumps that elongate Watson's leg in a surprisingly pleasing silhouette…
Although Watson's sartorial choices are always interesting, tonight her formal attire is for his benefit—or rather, as a nod to the occasion. Dinner at Le Bernardin, a birthday gift requiring plenty of wrangling to get on the crowded reservations list. He'd objected at first—too expensive, too exclusive, a waste of time and energy—but Watson cut him off with "I'm going, with or without you," so naturally he'd had no real say.
The ride over Brooklyn Bridge is, as always, a spectacle, the dusky blue-gray of the East River punctuated by barges and pleasure boats trailing white ribbons of wake.
FDR Drive, on the other hand, is as adrenaline inducing as a vigorous single stick workout. Cars whip forward within touching distance of each other. The cabbie—like so many New York cabbies—is a thin man of indeterminate ethnicity, though he has his radio tuned to a popular Tunisian program. He's unflappable, darting his cab in and out of several lanes. Watson seems oblivious, consumed with her phone.
When the cab turns onto 51st Street, the traffic and the lights force a slowdown. With a sigh, Watson slips her phone into her purse.
"Far be it from me," Sherlock says, keeping his eyes straight ahead, "to school you on social manners, but you have been unusually preoccupied with your phone today."
A pedestrian darts in front of the cab and the cabbie throws his arm out the window and yells in the same dialect of Darija blaring from the radio.
Watson leans forward and says to the cabbie, "We'll get out at the corner."
They are still two blocks from the restaurant but Watson swipes her credit card on the meter and slides across the seat after Sherlock. A foolish decision to give up the cab this soon, one of those observations Sherlock is on the verge of articulating until two steps down the sidewalk, he feels Watson steady herself by looping her arm through his.
Perhaps not so foolish after all.
They don't speak again until they are safely inside the restaurant seated next to the wall where a decorative cascade of hammered metal rectangles are oddly evocative of the sea.
"Don't even bother to look," Watson says, pointing to the hefty book sized menu. "I'm ordering the tasting menu for us both. Don't argue."
"I never argue," Sherlock says—eliciting a raised eyebrow from Watson. "And I am not a complete philistine, Watson. If I do not often take time to indulge in gastronomic excesses, it is not because I do not appreciate fine cuisine when the opportunity arises. And this—" he says, raising his hand to indicate the quietly thrumming room, almost as many waiters as patrons in sight, "is cuisine at its finest."
After the waiter leaves with their order, Watson shifts in her seat for a moment and then rests her elbow on the table. "You're right," she says. "About being preoccupied. I've been trying to get in touch with my brother for several days but I think he's ignoring me."
"And Oren would do that why?"
"Remember when my mother thought he was cheating on Gabrielle and she asked me to talk to him? He's still mad about that. At me! Now my mother wants me to make sure he gets to her birthday party, but I can't if he won't answer his phone."
Two waiters are suddenly at the table placing small plates in front of them.
"An amuse bouche," one waiter says. Sherlock leans down, his nose inches from a thimble-sized bowl of green liquid, and sniffs.
"Leeks, garlic, fish stock, and something else," he says, peering up at the waiter. If the waiter is surprised, he doesn't show it. Watson, on the other hand, tilts her head as if she wants to say something.
"Dried kelp," the waiter intones. "Please enjoy."
A tiny spoon rests on the plate and Sherlock picks it up and examines it closely.
"Ivory," he says, though of course Watson can see that. She wrinkles her brow and gives him a jaundiced look.
More proof that not every observation needs to be spoken.
The soup is, for lack of a better word, exquisite. Sherlock weighs whether or not to comment, but this seems like the sort of expected social interaction that accompanies a normal meal, unlike their usual conversation over a bowl of cold cereal caught on the fly when they are in the middle of a murder investigation.
"A propitious start to dinner," Sherlock says. Watson nods.
"I wanted to do something special for your birthday," Watson says. "Don't frown at me. There's nothing wrong with celebrating a birthday."
"Hence your mother's insistence on it."
At once he's sorry he spoke. Watson's face falls. Before he can think of an appropriate response, the waiters are back to remove the plates.
"Your brother," Sherlock says, when they are again alone. "Have you told him to stop being unreasonable?"
"People don't become reasonable just because you tell them to!"
"I was hoping your brother was different from mine."
Watson's expression changes again—this time to frank sadness.
"I'm sorry I said that," Sherlock says. He is, too. Not that Mycroft shouldn't be talked about—and badly, for all that—but seeing Watson in pain is…painful. "I too often say things I shouldn't."
Watson looks up. "But you do it so well," she says wryly.
"Your turn, then," Sherlock says as the waiters set down a single seared scallop and pour a brown sauce over it. He lowers his nose almost to the plate and takes a deep breath. Seaweed and bonito—classic dashi broth. "Have at me. Say something you shouldn't."
Watson picks up her spoon and takes a bite before answering.
"You're self-absorbed to a fault. You're inconsiderate. You're rude," she says, "even to your friends. Especially to your friends. Poor Harlan needed your help today and you bum-rushed him off just because you were in a bad mood."
"I was not in a mood," Sherlock says, objecting, "and he found the help he needed with you."
"You were in a mood. All because of your birthday. What is it with you and your birthday? Hate to be reminded of your mortality?"
The scallops finished, the waiters whisk away the empty plates and replace them with tuna sashimi. Sherlock picks up his fork and waves it at Watson.
"Did you know that tuna is one fish so rarely infected with parasites that it is completely safe to eat raw?"
"Didn't know—didn't want to know," Watson mutters. "And you're avoiding answering my question. What's with you and birthdays?"
Sherlock slowly spears a slice of tuna and considers how much to tell Watson about the abysmal birthdays in his past—large gatherings of his father's friends drinking too much and posturing too broadly, excuses to do covert business deals under the guise of a party, the supposed guest of honor sitting lonely and ignored in a corner, a pile of useless gifts of squash racquets and Victorian novels beside him, Mycroft lurking around the edges of the room listening to the adult conversation, making a point of eating the Cadbury's bars sent by a maiden aunt in Dorset. Same gift every holiday—the sickly sweet chocolate more than Sherlock could bear, though Mycroft didn't know that.
And later, his father more than tipsy by the time the guests left, boxing Sherlock's ear for being sullen.
That, too, was the same every holiday—alcohol to excess and then abuse.
"Hard to say," Sherlock says at last. "I should take a page from Mary Watson's book and celebrate in future."
The rest of the meal is pleasant—good food made better by Watson's recounting humorous anecdotes about her own past birthdays. Unusual, this—the way she never tires him, never bores him, the way almost everyone else inevitably does. When the waiter brings the bill to Watson, Sherlock excuses himself to the gents but continues to an alcove at the end of the hall and takes out his phone.
Rain is still falling when they leave Le Bernardin and Sherlock steps to the curb and lifts his arm, the way Watson taught him. A cab pulls up almost immediately and they are on their way. As they head out of midtown, Watson pulls out her phone.
"I think you will find that you can get through now," Sherlock says. "I spoke to Oren a few minutes ago and set him right."
"You did what?"
"Called your brother. Told him he was being unreasonable."
"You didn't! Please tell me you are joking!"
"He agreed. Said he knows you two need to talk. He would have spoken to you earlier but I said we were out celebrating my birthday."
He doesn't dare look Watson in the eye. Some observations need to be spoken—and some don't—and knowing which is which continues to baffle him. Perhaps he should have let her call Oren without any foreknowledge.
He darts a glance at Watson but her expression is unreadable.
"Earlier today," he says, "when Harlan indicated that he has been in communication with Kitty, I was, frankly, surprised. Two months and I've heard nothing from her, yet she's in touch with Harlan."
"She consulted him," Watson says, but he hears something like sorrow in her voice.
"No, it was more than that," he says. "I don't know when or how, but they have become friends. Friends, Watson. The way you and I are friends. The way I have tried to be your friend tonight."
A pressure on his forearm—Watson's hand giving him a squeeze—conferring absolution.
"Thank you," she says simply, and this time he looks at her directly. The tension she's carried for several days is gone, her carriage lighter, her posture more relaxed.
At the brownstone they go their separate ways—"I have to get out of these shoes!" she says as she heads upstairs—and Sherlock goes downstairs to the kitchen. There he puts on the kettle and dips his hand into his jacket pocket. A Cadbury's bar—slightly smushed from being mailed in an envelope—but intact. And with it a folded piece of paper with a phone number in Mycroft's tiny, precise handwriting.
Ripping open the candy, Sherlock takes an experimental lick. Cloying, as always. He tosses it into the wastebasket. After a moment, he balls up the paper and throws it in, too.
A/N: Forgiveness has to be worth more than a single candy bar!
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