Yeah, so, the whole update-over-the-summer idea didn't exactly pan out. But this was one of the toughest chapters since very little is going on. Things will pick up in the next one, I promise. For now, enjoy the banter! Thank you for your beautiful reviews!
Chapter 17: The Voice
A soldier's reflex is a dangerous thing to provoke. John hadn't been on the battlefield for over a year, though. Most times his reaction to being attacked or surprised wouldn't prove fatal. But that didn't mean a part of him, hidden deep within folds of morality and control, wasn't willing to punch a man in the spleen or windpipe and cause whatever damage necessary to neutralise his adversary. He didn't think twice about twisting partway around to grab his mysterious assailant, locking his arm around the man's neck and pulling him down in a chokehold.
The man grunted in alarm but flailed only half-heartedly. John sensed the man's feet moving into strategic positions to unbalance him. He responded by adjusting his stance and angling down the man's head and neck even more. The assailant shifted his weight to push on John's legs, which did result in them both staggering toward a heap of rubbish. John, feeling his heart rate spike at the impending collision, focused solely on not falling or letting the man trip him up. He forgot he had an ally with him until Sherlock, armed with a wooden beam, came up behind the attacker and struck him in the back of his left knee. The man cried out and went down on his knees. The move allowed John to get behind him and throw his weight on him. He flattened the man and pinned him with his knee and forearm.
Sherlock shined his torch on the man. The head, pressing against the cold, dirty floor, faced them in profile. Doctor and detective recognised the face and the slate gray uniform worn by the theatre's cleaners.
"We meet again, Mr Khan," declared Sherlock in an ominously pleased tone. "What are you doing down here?"
Nadir Khan tried to wiggle free. John kept him in place. "I work here. And I could ask you the same question."
"Why'd you attack me?" John snarled through clamped teeth.
"I was not attacking you! I thought you were vandals or burglars breaking into the cellars. I didn't recognise you in the dark."
"A verbal warning would have done the trick." Sherlock stepped around to loom over Nadir's head. "Let him sit up, John."
The doctor grunted but nonetheless acquiesced. With John's knee gone, Nadir gasped for air and pushed himself up. His jade eyes peeped up at Sherlock through the glare of the torch. "I thought you would take off if I did. And if I may say so, I don't think crushing my windpipe was warranted, either." He only looked at Sherlock, but his words and the gesture of rubbing his neck were meant for John.
"A soldier will do what he must. You'd do well to remember that." Sherlock's eyes flitted to John for half a second. They held a faint glint of both humour and respect.
Nadir coughed before rising to his feet. "I assume you are here without the permission of the managers."
While offering John a hand off the floor, Sherlock still paid the cleaner enough attention to raise his eyebrows. "How observant of you. We didn't receive explicit permission to come down here. Then again, they didn't say we couldn't."
"In other words, you didn't ask."
"You could say that."
"I see." Nadir all but returned to the collected persona he normally emoted whenever John saw him. He stood very straight. "Then I must suggest that you leave before I am forced to remove you."
Sherlock matched his sturdy stance. "You're a cleaner, not a security guard." The tenor of his voice bordered on supercilious. "Why should I listen to you?"
"I am asking you out of courtesy to you and to my employers." Nadir's voice didn't exactly get louder, but it filled the space in an intimidating way.
"Are you also asking out of courtesy to the person who set up that?" Sherlock pointed a defaming finger toward the dangling noose.
Even in the darkness, John thought Nadir's face, though stoically still, went a shade paler when he saw the malicious trap. He replied with quiet, righteous ferocity. "Whoever did that will be held accountable."
"What a relief," the detective drawled. "You have no idea who put that there?"
Nadir retreated a step. "Perhaps one of the crew, but no one I could identify."
Sherlock followed him. "Why one of the crew? Someone with a vendetta? A prankster with a twisted sense of humour?"
"I know no one among the cleaners who fits those criteria." Nadir's other foot slid back slowly while he watched Sherlock and John. Some flecks of grime from the floor stuck to his dark beard. The grime and the stains on his uniform made him strangely congruous with the hills of forsaken items that surrounded them.
"What about the performers? Cleaners are the flies on the wall, the CCTV system of their workplace. Did no one ever strike you as suspicious?"
"You give me too much credit." Nadir spoke with a quiet chuckle that surprised John almost as much as his sudden shoulder-grab. The man knew how to chuckle? John had never seen him break into a smile. Then he understood: the man was nervous. Truly nervous. But of Sherlock and his questions? He never let his guard down before when under scrutiny. What made his shell crack now?
"I think not." Sherlock's voice dipped even lower as he walked closer to Nadir. "Your stance, your disposition in company . . . what happened to you, Mr Khan? Why did a policeman like yourself need to flee his own country and become a cleaner?"
The rest of the shell continued to splinter, but Nadir, to John's amazement, fought to hold it together despite being exposed. "How do you know that?" he asked with a considerable amount of restraint.
"Like I told you, I observe." Sherlock scanned Nadir's figure with the torch's light. "The way you hold yourself; your silent, watchful demeanor; your resistance to answering questions – and when you do, your answers are clipped, clear, efficient; and the fact that you, rather than inform the managers or contact the police, followed and tried to apprehend us yourself – something only the adventurous, the stupid and the experienced would do. Policeman so far fits nicely. You also still feel endowed with a certain degree of authority even though your position does not lend any. The managers, while not giving us permission to explore, were kind enough to tell us that you'd left Iran in something of a hurry. You could be a criminal, but your otherwise clean record and attitude toward potential criminals suggests the opposite. "
John held his breath for Nadir's response. Responses to Sherlock's rapid-fire deductions normally fell in one of two categories: astonished admiration or astonished annoyance. Nadir's mouth opened a little, signaling the astonished part of the expected reaction. John was prepared for pretty much anything. Anything except laughter – laughter that invaded the air. First as a whisper. Then a distant rumble. Then an oceanic crash of hysterical cackling.
The laughter didn't come from Nadir Khan. John couldn't tell where it came from or the sex of its owner. He felt his skin freeze over. He spun around. His foot knocked against his lost torch. The combination of terror at this new, unknown presence and the need to see it made him briefly forget about Nadir and dive for the torch. Just as his hand clamped around it, he heard Sherlock shout, "John!" His friend's voice brought him right back up to his feet. He looked in time to see Nadir vanish behind a tower of rubbish. Sherlock grabbed John by the sleeve and towed him along after the cleaner.
"Sherlock, wait!" They started weaving through the narrow pathways among the discarded set pieces and props, but the memory of the noose made John snag Sherlock's sleeve. "What if we trigger another trap? We don't even know what we're dealing with!"
Sherlock stopped so quickly that John crashed into his back. The taller man remained steady and shined his torch in every direction. Aside from their breathing, they heard no other sounds. No footsteps or voices. After regaining his balance, John pulled on his friend's sleeve again. "We should go. I've got a really, really bad feeling about this."
He would never be sure which did it: his words, or the sudden stampede above them. But Sherlock did reverse direction, and the pair ascended the stairs that brought them into that dank, depressing cellar. They reached light and fresh air just before a barrage of stage crew overwhelmed them with their curiosity. Several of them claimed to have heard a ruckus down below. Others asked if someone else hadn't heard the 'awful laugh' that travelled from under the stage to the wings of the theatre. Sherlock barrelled past all people and questions and made for the closest exit, John never far behind.
"What the hell was that?" the still rattled doctor asked when they were back in the safe confines of a cab. "The laughing voice. Was that the ghost? Is Khan somehow behind it? I've been wondering if he knew something or had a hand in matters. You said he wasn't a criminal, but cops can go bad, too. You still think this somehow connects to Gary's murder?"
Sherlock propped his elbow against the window sill. He pressed his hand against his mouth and kept his gaze aimed out the window for the entire ride home. A long moment passed before he answered, "Don't talk. Need to think." His words were muffled behind the stubborn hand.
That was that, then, until they reached Baker Street. Sherlock stayed silent even as they processed up the stairs and entered the sitting area. He hung up his coat and immediately paced across the room several times, hands in a prayer pose. "John," he announced at last, after leaving his friend in confounding silence for a good ten minutes. "I need the wall."
A groan slid out of John's throat. It unfortunately couldn't excuse him from getting up from the comfy chair and exchanging it for the less comfy chair at the table. In a few minutes his computer was up and running, connected to the printer. He began searching images Sherlock speedily listed off to print out. Fifty pages of printer paper later, the pair worked together cropping the pictures and taping them to the wall over the sofa. Sherlock whipped out a map of Soho and hung it up. It was already well marked with dots, circles and notes from previous cases. Dismissing them entirely, Sherlock used a red pencil to circle the locations of the Palace Theatre, Gary's flat, St Martin-in-the-Fields, and the Tin Pan Alley Bar. The four spots formed a wonky quadrangle. Apart from being relatively close in proximity, the arrangement of places held little meaning to John.
That was only the start. John put up photos of Mr and Mrs Gary and labelled them. After searching Nadir and Malaika Qadir's names and coming up with no photos of them, John settled for a random picture of a man in a cleaner's uniform and another of a woman whose burqa resembled Malaika's. To his surprise, John did find a picture of Jonas Nilsson on St Martin's website in a group photo. Each person was placed at the location of their occupation, except Gary. Sherlock placed him at the scene where his body was discovered. He also connected threads between people and the locations they associated with besides where they worked. It soon became evident, if it weren't already, that Gary sat in the middle of a complex web. He was the common denominator.
"Wait," said John. "What about the old man at the pub?"
Sherlock took John's notepad without permission and drew a quick sketch of the man he'd seen at the pub. Though it was in red pencil and only a quick capture, it was a near-perfect likeness. John thought he could identify the odd-looking bloke if he saw him in real life. Sherlock scribbled question marks in place of a name and pinned him up at the TPA Bar.
With their mural completely set up, Sherlock stepped back and tried to view it all at once. John stared along with him. There was so much information. So many suspects, yet no clear leads. John folded his arms and scowled in thought. He didn't know where to start.
The detective suddenly pushed him back. "Go over there. Don't look at the wall. Your thoughts keep throwing me off."
John began to object. His resistance impelled Sherlock to forcibly escort him by the shoulder back to his overstuffed chair. It could have been worse. John could name four instances off the top of his head when Sherlock outright ordered him to leave the flat for a couple of hours while he mulled over a case. He took the opportunity to settle into the inviting leather upholstery and catch up on some reading. He picked up today's paper, still lying slightly askew on Sherlock's chair. It was nice to be able to relax his brain for a change while he read an article about the buzz regarding the queen's upcoming Golden Jubilee.
Half an hour passed before Sherlock's voice, low and frustrated, imposed on John's relaxation. "It has to be, John. It has to be about Gary's criminal life. Nilsson's involved, too. He knows more than he's saying. Text Lestrade. Tell him to bring in Nilsson for questioning."
His flatmate obeyed, glad that some progress was being made. A few minutes later John got a reply. "He wants to know if you have any specific questions for him to ask."
A long, soft sigh emitted from Sherlock. "Press for information about Malaika Qadir. I'm sure he knows her whereabouts."
After sending off the message, John didn't receive any more texts from Lestrade. Sherlock kept checking in – as if John would withhold information from him. "Keep your britches on, Sherlock. This isn't the only case he's working on, you know."
"Can't he hand over the others to someone else?" Sherlock sounded more like a five-year-old with every passing moment.
"You know it doesn't work like that. He does a lot already to accommodate you."
"If I ask enough times, yes!" Sherlock huffed and whirled away from the wall. John looked up to see him retrieve his violin from the window sill. Seeing it carefully balanced in such a hazardous position both impressed and worried him. "If I were in his position, I'd make the necessary effort to keep the boring cases off my desk."
"And make sure you were fired in a week, no doubt." A smirk bloomed on John's face.
Sherlock blinked rapidly. He did that on the rare occasion he was blindsided or embarrassed. "Well . . ." He dismissed it with another huff and started playing. John didn't recognise the music by name, but it carried a grave, pondering tone that coloured all the pieces Sherlock performed when he needed help with brainwork. When the piece sounded like it was coming to a close, the detective suddenly switched to something more upbeat and violent. This new attitude disrupted John's ability to read, so he went to the kitchen to make lunch and brew a pot. He felt temped to go for a walk when Sherlock started grinding away at the strings, but just as the whistle for the kettle went off, the violin music returned to a sombre, almost mournful timbre. That John could handle. He came back with a cup for Sherlock, which he knew the detective wouldn't touch. He'd made it anyway just in case. If he had learned anything about Sherlock, both recently and within the past year, it was to be ready for "just in case", however unlikely it seemed. After eating, John alternated between reading the paper and magazines and browsing the web on his laptop.
The rest of the day passed in this fashion. When Sherlock took breaks from playing, he didn't talk to John, or even to himself. He plopped on the sofa, rolled his head back and stared at the ceiling. John never doubted that Sherlock was still meditating on the case. He never bothered recording this part of their investigations in his blog. Who wanted to waste time reading about how Sherlock languished for an entire day in the flat just thinking, rather than how he ran around the city badgering people and finding the most inscrutable yet crucial clues? For John, the slower, quieter moments gave him more time to think. Well, they weren't all that quiet. That was okay, too, in a strange way. John didn't like things to get too quiet.
It surprised John when he checked his watch and saw that five o'clock had snuck up on them. He suddenly remembered Sarah. Tonight. At the theatre. He almost jumped from his seat. Remembering what he'd told Sherlock – that he had another shift at the surgery – he made himself rise slowly and casually walk out the room and up the stairs to his bedroom. Sherlock didn't question his departure, or even seem to notice. When he got to his room, John started rummaging through his closet. What should he wear? If he left dressed for an evening out, Sherlock would surely catch wind of what he was up to.
The best strategy was to take his time. He assessed his collection of jumpers and shirts. A balance had to be struck between dressy enough for theatre yet appropriate for work. Twenty minutes proved enough time to do this without drawing Sherlock's notice by his absence. John came back down and checked in on his friend. For the first time in several hours, the detective stared straight at the wall. To get close to it, he had to stand on the sofa and kneel against its head. His fingers planted themselves on the collage over the four buildings he had circled. He parted his lips and squinted. It looked as though he'd finally found two pieces that came very close to fitting together.
John coughed. "Found something?"
Sherlock held still for a second, then relaxed. He dropped his hand and let it slap against his side. "Possibly." He turned to John, probably just to glance and acknowledge his presence, but instead he did a double-take. "Going somewhere?"
John resisted squaring his shoulders or straightening up. He had to seem nonchalant. "I told you I have work tonight. I wanted to dress before having dinner."
Grey eyes narrowed on him. "What time is it? I thought you didn't go in till seven."
"Well . . . I wanted to eat and then . . . go and look for something for Sarah."
Sherlock's eyebrows jumped. "Sarah?" He shut his eyes and snapped his fingers. "The, uh, the doctor, right? Why do you need to get her anything? You're still working together?"
John smiled and went into the kitchen. It was probably too soon, but he felt rather proud of himself. Nothing like using the truth to tell a convincing lie. "Yes, we're still working together. It's her birthday. I forgot until she reminded me yesterday."
Sherlock sniffed and returned his gaze to the wall. "Tell her no, John."
"No what?" John wanted to buy himself time and keep Sherlock distracted. He didn't care about anything else enough to get riled up.
"You can't take her back. No matter what she says or does, it won't be worth it. It won't last."
"Sherlock, relax. This isn't a date. We're just friends." He let a moment pass, giving him time to take out a frozen dinner and pre-heat the oven. "But why do you think it wouldn't work? I mean if, hypothetically, Sarah and I wanted to get back together."
"Do you know how many girlfriends you've had since Sarah?"
John chuckled sharply. "I'm not sure you know."
"I've got it stored away. Somewhere. The point is you are not in a position to maintain a prolonged romantic or sexual relationship. Women like prolonged relationships. Ergo, you and Sarah would not be able to sustain one. Encouraging her would be a waste of time."
"Going by that logic," said John, setting the timer, "Sarah should know from experience that things won't work with us. So, what makes you think she's interested?"
"Women also like a project. They consider turning a single man with commitment issues into a devoted partner a major accomplishment. It has something to do with self-esteem."
John poked his head out of the kitchen. "How would you know?"
"Remember the case of the man with two IDs? The real estate agent who convinced his 'fiancée' he was two people?"
The details of the case gradually returned to John's mind. "Oh, right. Poor girl. But Sarah's not like that. I think she's seen other people since, and she knows we're better off as friends."
"Then why did she remind you it was her birthday?"
"I don't know! I guess I forgot last year, too, and she wanted me to have something to give her this time."
Sherlock had no off-the-cuff response for that. All his attention was apparently redirected back to the smattering of pictures. He waited to speak after the oven was ready for John's still frozen dinner. "No chance of getting out of work?"
"Nope." John felt the undertow. He treaded mindfully.
"Are you going anywhere after work, or will you come straight back?"
"I'll be back as soon as I can," said John with a sigh.
"Not going out for dear Sarah's birthday?"
"I can make arrangements if you need me out of the flat for longer."
This suggestion made Sherlock look at John with widened eyes. "Why would I want that?"
John chuckled again. "There isn't much I can do now, is there? You didn't even want me looking at the wall!"
The pout sprouting on Sherlock's mug signalled to John that he had, for the second time in two days, managed to annoy his friend into resorting to three-year-olds' facial expressions. He'd maxed out on witty responses. Maybe Sherlock needed a proper holiday.
The good news was that the doctor could eat in peace before leaving. Sherlock asked him only one thing as he swallowed down limp spaghetti and soupy marinara sauce. "What's so important about birthdays, anyway? We don't do anything special for each other. We don't even remember the dates."
John looked up. A small piece of pasta clung to his lip. "I remember when your birthday is!"
Sherlock twisted his head around. "You do?"
"Oh." The detective rolled his eyes toward the ceiling. "Sounds right."
John laughed just somewhat incredulously. "Why am I not surprised?" He finished wolfing down his meal, wiped off what didn't make it into his mouth, and then cleared his place. When the kitchen was back in order, John headed for the door and told him he'd see him later, very likely between ten-thirty and eleven. Sherlock was already enrapt again with examining their visual aid. If John was lucky, his flatmate wouldn't even realise he'd been gone for at least an hour.