Term break was looming large. Lisa and her parents were off on some epic tour of France and Italy, Marcus was being flown to the States for an involuntary job
experience placement with some fancy high-tech start-up-god-knew-what. Thea figured it was a no-hold-barred attempt to keep him from getting stoned and
going out to gigs for two weeks straight, his parents had been getting a little narky of late. So while Lisa cheerfully careened across the channel and Marcus
was forcibly bundled into an airplane, Thea sat on the windowsill and looked out at Baker Street somewhat dejectedly.
"Only the stupid are bored in their own company."
She turned her head to shoot her father a half-hearted glare.
"You're constantly bored," she pointed out.
Sherlock was holding a severed toe, impaled on a long metal skewer, using a paintbrush to carefully coat it in clear paste.
"Thankfully, we have it on good authority that I'm a rubbish role model." Sherlock put down the paint brush, selected a tiny blow torch from the mayhem on the
table and set the toe on fire. It went up like a piece of paper and within seconds a charred bone clattered to the kitchen floor.
"Whoa!" Thea jumped off the sill and ambled into the kitchen. "Can I do one?"
"Are you capable of asking properly?"
"May I do one?"
The soup bowl on the kitchen table was about half full of detached digits. Thea retrieved her gloves and goggles from the drawer next to the sink and picked
out a middle finger with long finger nail varnished in sparkly green nail polish. She took a skewer from the sink and slowly worked the finger onto it, taking care
not to break the skin. It was a little tricky, there was almost no meat on the finger.
"What is that?" she asked, nodding towards the container of paste.
"Pyro-exhilarant." Her father handed her the paint brush.
"Is this about the maniac setting homeless people on fire?" As she started coating the finger, Thea flashed back to colouring Easter eggs in primary school.
"Ahm…yes," Sherlock said cautiously.
"It's all over the news," Thea said, anticipating his next question. "Anyone we know?"
"Not thus far."
"Would you tell me if it was?" The finger was now covered and glistening, giving off a faint aroma of sulphur. "Someone we know, I mean."
"Because death upsets you."
"Fair enough, dead people and pieces of them don't seem to have adverse effects," her father conceded. "But death itself would be jarring."
"It doesn't upset you?" Thea challenged.
"No use getting worked up over the inevitable." Sherlock took the blowtorch and adjusted its setting before handing it to her. "Caring-"
"Spare me the Mycroft-talk…" Thea clicked the torch into action and the finger all but disappeared. "This is wild! May I do another? One more?"
Her father rolled his eyes in the affirmative.
"Anyway," Thea went on as she slid the skewer into a slightly hairy toe, "it's not like your life's been affected by death a whole lot."
"I beg your pardon?" Sherlock seemed momentarily stunned. "Barely a fortnight goes by without me encountering a dead body, death permeates my life."
"Sure, but all the people you…interact with…regularly…" expressing what she meant without using any words describing overt emotion was tricky "…none of
them has died yet. Nor any of your influential senior relations."
"Uncle Rudy's dead," her father pointed out.
"Yea, okay, but did you see him when he was alive? After you moved out of home?" Sherlock shook his head slightly. "I rest my case. You're virtually untouched
by death. So you can stop acting as if you're impervious to mourning. It's pretentious."
As she payed renewed attention to the toe, she noted her father's posture stiffen slightly. Very few things annoyed him more than being called pretentious;
probably because he fancied himself a bit of a rebel, a thought that made Thea smile.
"I see," he said finally. "Whereas you, naturally, have experienced loads of deaths in your immediate circle, yes?"
"Well, I certainly am not the one who still has two living parents."
She could practically feel his irritation radiating from him in hot waves.
"Now who's being pretentious?" he snipped.
Still grinning, Thea set the toe off and marvelled at the satisfying 'whoosh' when it went up in flames.
"Is it this fast even when it's a whole person?" she asked.
"Not quite." Sherlock frowned. "Not at all, in fact…odd. This is definitely the substance forensics identified, but the victims all burned for far longer than this
reaction should suggest. Odd."
"Odd…" Thea echoed, shivering slightly at the thought of burning alive for any amount of time.
Her father was toying with a charred piece of bone, clearly on his way into the palace when suddenly he seemed to think better of it.
"Ask me something else about this."
Supposedly this was a technique that helped him examine things from new angles – and it left the option of simply declaring the questioner a moron if no fresh
angle was uncovered, which Sherlock always enjoyed. Even though she had been on the receiving end of his scorn countless times, Thea never refused when
he threw the bait out. The slim chance of actually proving herself helpful, or even remotely clever, was just too tempting.
"What's the common denominators of the victims?" she asked gamely.
"All of them are over the age of 40, have been living on the streets for considerable time, none have any convictions, all of them smoke," her father answered
at rapid pace.
"Okay…how does he get that stuff on them? It would take a while to cover a person in this."
"We don't know."
"Is there anything on CCTV?"
"Nope. And they weren't in blind spots either. One moment they're sitting there, the next…poof."
"Come on! You can do better…"
"Does it hurt?"
"Oh, you're hilarious." Thea made a face. "Where were they found?"
"Two in Whitechapel, one in Bethnal Green, another in Limehouse."
"Really…" A little something started buzzing deep in Thea's data banks. "And all of them since Wednesday?"
"The first Wednesday evening, two more in the early hours of Thursday – at four and five am respectively, the last Thursday afternoon. Then nothing. We had
high hopes for the weekend, but he's not done another."
"Strange pattern," Thea pointed out. Too far apart for a rampage, too few for a proper series.
"Thank you," Sherlock said with scathing sarcasm.
"You asked for assistance."
"Is that what you call it?"
Ignoring him, Thea flipped open the paper file sitting next to the bowl of digits and flinched slightly at the picture of a weirdly charred carcass. An actual
carcass, with some burned meat, quite a lot of burned meat in fact, remaining on the jutting bones. Nothing like the results their home test was yielding.
"Can I try something?" she asked.
"These are not for playing, " Sherlock said warningly. "This is-"
"One more, alright?" Thea was up and rooting through the bottom of a kitchen cupboard. "If it's no good, you can use one of my fingers."
Her father snorted a laugh.
From beneath a stack of substandard scarfs, Thea extracted a single woollen glove. She sawed one of its fingers off with a bread knife and carefully smeared it
with the exhilarant, clamped the damp piece of wool between a pair of tongs and went to the bathroom to retrieve the barely used hairdryer. Using the coolest
setting, lest the fabric combust from contact with hot air, she dried it completely, took it back to the kitchen and gently inserted one of the severed fingers.
Sherlock was watching with considerable interest now.
Thea skewered the clothed finger.
"Do you have any cigarettes?" she asked.
"I should be so lucky," her father sighed.
In lieu of the real deal, Thea rolled up a piece of paper, set in on fire and carefully let a bit of glowing debris fall on her test object.
The result was mildly terrifying. While the glove went up like gangbusters, it also fused with the finger in the process, apparently transferring the exhilarant to
the first layer of skin. The finger burned for a long time, filling the kitchen with a vaguely bacony stench. When the flames ceased, it lay smouldering and still
meaty on the metal plate before them.
"Huh." Sherlock picked up the finger and examined it carefully. "Right."
"You know the Homeless Link at Minories?" Thea asked.
Her father nodded pensively.
"They have handout day every second Wednesday."
"It's when they give out free clothes and things, stuff that gets donated. It's on from one to four in the afternoon." Thea looked up at her father waiting for him
to tell her he already knew this, but nothing of the kind occurred. "I don't know if they keep a register or something," she went on, "but I venture all your
burned buddies were there this week, getting clothes from the same bag. It's just a question of tracking down the arsehole who donated the bag."
Sherlock stared at her with a strange expression.
"It makes sense," she said quickly. "The Minories is near enough to all the places the bodies were found and that particular place is epically good. And then,
you know, a bit of falling cigarette ash and whoosh. That would also explain that no perpetrator was caught on CCTV. He made them self-immolate, sort
"That was…good." Sherlock fished his mobile from his pocket and started texting. "How did you know about that charity place?"
"I dunno…I just do."
"Don't know," her father corrected, studying her intently. "And that's not even true. How do you know?"
"I may have gone there once or twice for lunch," Thea said without looking at him.
"Free lunch?" she offered lamely.
"No, of course not. There's food in the house now."
It took her father a moment to process this information.
"Look," Thea said before he had a chance to blow up. "Ancient history. And as it turns out, it comes in handy. So hooray. Yes?"
"Hooray," Sherlock said morosely, turning his attention to a text pinging on his mobile. "I'm off. Here…" he dug into his trouser pocket and withdrew a crumpled
ten pound note. "Get yourself an indecent quantity of some disease ridden curry. Lest I let my child starve."
"I didn't mean-"
"Don't wait up," her father interrupted and fairly sprinted from the room, throwing his coat on as he left with a motion that reminded Thea of Batman. That
would have been even worse, living with Batman. The Bat Cave didn't even have a fridge.
Many hours later, Thea was standing on a kitchen chair downstairs in 221C, a slab of foam between her teeth and a hot glue gun in hand. After almost a year
of keeping a stiff upper lip, Mrs Hudson had finally put her foot down a few nights ago and demanded Thea soundproof her hallowed halls of practise. It was
turning out to be quite the project and Thea wondered frequently how long it must have taken Marcus to do his garden shed.
The remainder of her curry – she had gone completely overboard and, uncharacteristically to the extreme, had been unable to finish – sat on an upturned milk
crate on the floor. The Clash was playing very softly on her ancient boom box in the corner and Thea, absorbed in her work, sang along absentmindedly.
"My daddy was a bank robber but he never hurt nobody…"
The door creaked open behind her.
"It can't be too loud, that's preposterous," Thea groaned without turning around. "I can barely hear it in here, Mrs Hudson, your ears can't possibly be keener
than mine – you're three hundred years old…"
"If even I recognise this as bad manners, it must be frankly atrocious behaviour."
"You're home early."
"It's 2.15 in the morning."
"Incredibly early," Thea corrected herself. "Have some curry. They claim it's lamb but I've got a feeling it might be horse. His sister's married to a French man, he
runs a delicatessen in Mayfair and throws them stuff off the back of the van. They're having twins in September, not his sister and the French man, Khalid and
his missus. He thinks they're boys but she already found out that's not so and she can't bring herself to tell him. Afraid he'll be displeased."
"Will he be?" She heard her father sit down on the crate and place the take away on the floor.
"No, he's going to be delighted. He'll call them the twin moons of his life and be out of his mind with paternal adoration. Eat something, it's fine. I had it hours
ago and I'm still standing." Thea pressed the foam against the spider's web of glue with all her weight, using her entire body and still the bloody thing slipped.
"Or are you still on a case?"
"As it happens, no."
Thea peeled the loose sheet of foam from the wall and put it between her knees, inserting another stick of hard glue into the gun.
"Some new age peaceniks got their bags confused," Sherlock said with a slight chuckle. "The clothes were meant for a rather dramatic rally next week - they
were going to burn effigies of some dull politicians - and the prepared props ended up in their donations pile by mistake."
"No!" Thea lowered the hot glue and turned to stare at him. "No chance."
Her father met her eyes, his laughter barely containable now.
"That's not funny…" Giggles rose before she'd even made it to the end of her sentence. "That's just awful…oh, man…that's a whole new level of irony!"
Sherlock was shaking his head, shoulders jerking with spasms of mirth.
"Can you imagine…" Thea gasped, shakily getting off the chair and sitting down, "…can you just imagine what John's gonna call this one?"
This sent her father into full-blown hysterics, for his standards anyhow; he didn't even correct her expression.
"The Char-ity Case…" she could barely whimper it and was only vaguely aware of Sherlock doubled over on the crate, vibrating with laughter.
"You're a disgrace," he managed to choke out. "Shame on you."
It took them a considerable amount of time to compose themselves, probably because neither party was trying very hard.
"Shame on you," Sherlock finally repeated when he regained the power of speech. "And shame on your glue gunmanship. Give it here."
Thea handed over the glue.
"You're too slow applying the foam," her father explained, layering glue on the wall. "It can't fuse with the adhesive if the glue cools down. And...go!"
By quarter to five Thea's arms were aching, Sherlock's hands were freckled with miniscule burns and 221C was ready for action.