The knock was like a half-heard whisper at his door—if Sherlock hadn't been expecting it, he might have missed it entirely.
Setting aside his safety glasses and turning down the Bunsen burner, he made his way to the front of the flat. Before he even had his hand on the door, it hit him: the smell of flowers. The odor nearly knocked him back on his feet: roses, lilies, and violets. Not the earthy, invigorating scent of a greenhouse conservatory, but the sickly-sweet, cloying perfume of a funeral display.
Through the fog of scent, she peered at him, uncertain: "Mr. Holmes?"
He recovered himself quickly. "Yes, yes—please, do come in. I've been expecting you."
Her pink petal lips smiled at him as she glided past: graceful, serene. Everything about her was flowers, from her lily-white skin to her cornsilk hair—her eyes were the color of moss. She looked up at him through branch-like lashes, the hollows of her eyes accented by a deep iris purple. "You've been so good to see me. I know my case is…unusual."
"On the contrary," he assured her. "Though the details of my clients and their concerns may change, I can assure you that 'unusual' is the usual description for all my cases. If your request had been ordinary, I wouldn't have troubled myself. Now please—come have a seat. My landlady has prepared tea. It's my understanding that a bit of refreshment makes discussing such matters more comfortable."
Gratefully, she moved into the study toward the table he indicated. He couldn't help but notice that she avoided the seats near the window, around the half of the table that was bathed in sunlight. Instead, she chose the farthest chair—in the corner, tucked away in shadows.
Sherlock took the opportunity to observe her as he poured out the tea into the rose-printed china cups Mrs. Hudson had laid out. His guest was thin and trembling as a reed, nearly lost in her long white gown. And yet, despite the layers of lace and stiff fabric, she made not a sound as she moved: stirring her tea, dripping in the milk. He wasn't the sort to notice, but she was lovely in a fragile, unearthly way: like the antique china dolls Mummy used to keep in her parlour.
He was running out of tasks to perform to prolong his observation, but she seemed perfectly accustomed to silence. It was Sherlock's impatience that broke first. "Must you hide yourself away in that corner?" he tried in his most gentle voice. "Another chair might be warmer…"
She smiled sadly before meeting his eyes. "It makes no difference—I am never warm."
"Yes, well—I thought you might enjoy the sun."
Her chest heaved as she sighed, but no sound escaped her pale, parted lips. She might have been sad, but the mask of her face didn't change. "The sun means nothing to me anymore. My husband, however—he was devoted to it. Of course, that was his downfall…"
"Of course," Sherlock agreed hastily, eager to move on. Her reactions were beginning to intrigue him: sad, but lacking the expressiveness he'd observed in other young widows. Although she wasn't exactly a widow…
"Eurydice," he started again. "May I call you Eurydice?"
Moonlight-pale eyes rose up to meet him. "What else would you call me?"
"Yes, well—I wanted to ask you: why me? Why did you hire me for this job?"
She took a sip of her tea before replying. Despite the clouds of steam still billowing from his own cup, hers seemed to have cooled completely. "There was no one else, really. I haven't any family—not anymore. Not for a long time, in fact. I would have done it myself, but I'm only in town, as it were, for the one day. And you did come highly recommended."
"Recommended?" He could feel the hairs on the back of his neck standing up—a curious and unfamiliar sensation. "Who would have recommended me?"
"You needn't be so modest." With her smile, she might have been teasing him, but her voice didn't change from its soft, unemotional lilt. "You are quite well known, where I come from. Quite well known, in fact—I've heard your name sung both in curses and in praise. No matter which one might listen to, your reputation is quite impressive."
The warm sip of tea turned to stone in his mouth. It was a struggle to swallow it before he could reply. "Yes, well, you'll have to forgive me. I might have considered the possibility of an afterlife before, but your particular situation would never have occurred to me."
"I understand that views have progressed since my time."
"They might have changed," Sherlock frowned, "but I'm not sure they've progressed."
She considered his remark for a moment, her head a blossom tilting in a breeze. Her reverie lasted only a moment: she wasn't here to discuss theology with London's greatest detective. "Can I see him?" she asked at last.
He set his teacup down in its saucer before replying. "If you like. Of course, that is what you came for. It's just, I'm not sure—how you want to do this…"
"What do you mean?"
"Well," he began, stalling for time. Though he never had been any good at dealing with the usual demands of human emotions, he had grown accustomed to at least expecting their presence. This woman showed none of the signs he would have expected: no tears, no sentimentality. Still, he made one last attempt at civility. "You see, this isn't exactly a funeral parlour—I don't have a 'viewing room', as it were."
"Not to worry, sir—I wasn't expecting as such. Where is he, then?"
He shifted uncomfortably, remembering John's earlier reaction to the answer. "He is…in my refrigerator."
She didn't blink an eye. "Fine. May I see him now?"
The smell of flowers preceded her as she followed Sherlock into the kitchen. Aside from her overwhelming perfume, he might have forgotten she was behind him at all—she didn't make a sound. He looked back, and caught the slight flinch when she met his eyes; embarrassed for the second time in recent memory, he quickly turned back toward the kitchen and moved swiftly to the refrigerator door. Suddenly nervous, he yanked it open without ceremony.
Nestled on the middle shelf, between boxes of old Chinese takeaway and Watson's case of lager, sat a roughly severed head.
Where John had erupted with a less-than-manly scream and spent a quarter of an hour cursing upon discovery of their refrigerated guest, Eurydice didn't react at all upon her first glance. She simply stood and stared. Within seconds, though, she began to transform. Some of the chill left her porcelain white skin, a spot of color appearing over each cheek. Her eyes softened, and she reached out a thin, elegant hand to stroke the blueish cheek of her best beloved. "Isn't he beautiful?" she murmured, the first spark of emotion creeping into her voice.
"Mm, quite…" Sherlock shifted from one foot to the other, not sure where he should be looking. He was uncomfortable with affectionate interactions between live, breathing humans: watching a shade on loan from the underworld caress the severed head of her husband brought him to new levels of social awkwardness.
It was time to cut his losses. "Miss…Eurydice," he began.
At first she didn't seem to have heard him, but slowly she tore her eyes away from the florescent glow of the refrigerator. "Yes, Mr. Holmes?"
"Before you go, I was wondering…that is, I have some questions…"
She cocked her head to the side, eyes flicking back to her husband's face. "I'll do my best to answer, but you must understand: there is only so much I can tell. It was one of His conditions, you see—the 'veil of mystery', and all."
"Ah, of course. Well, whatever you can tell me…"
"Indeed. We'll have an exchange, then—I have questions for you, as well."
"If you'd like to return to our previous location? There's more tea…"
"As you wish." She tore herself away reluctantly. "I suppose he and I will have more than enough time, after today."
"And it's been ages since I've had tea."
She seemed to float through his kitchen, and this time he followed after her, back to the little dining table where their tea things still sat. It was a curious situation: meeting someone who could make him uncomfortable.
"Do you mind if I go first?" she asked, once she'd resumed her place in the corner. The tea had gone cold, but she didn't seem to notice.
"By all means—ask away." He lifted his own tepid cup and took a small, dissatisfying sip.
"Where did you find him?"
It was the natural place to start. "Oh, err…in the river, if you can believe it."
"The River?" Her face contorted in confusion, but her eyes remained as lifeless as marbles. "How could you have found your way to the River? Only the Dead may enter the land of…"
"Oh no!" he broke in quickly. "Not…not that river. The Thames, actually—just downriver from Canary Wharf."
"Oh, yes?" her quiet posture urged him to go on.
"Err, yes. I'd been tracking down his remains for several days, but in the end it was a stroke of luck—I managed to hear a report of a head in the Thames over the police scanner. I had no way of knowing at first if it was the head I was hunting, but how many heads end up floating in the Thames?" When she didn't answer, he went on, "Well, there were three in 2010…and one earlier this year. Still, the odds were on my side, as it were. I managed to divert the officials with an anonymous report of a B&E in the vicinity of the responding unit—before they were able to dispatch another car, I managed to get down there and…retrieve the head. There's a sporting equipment store not far from the spot where he washed up—I managed to find a net large enough to be suitable…"
All at once, he realized he was babbling—spouting irrelevant details of what had been, in the end, one of the more routine cases he'd consented to take in a good long while: a simple search and retrieve. He was sitting in his flat, sharing tea of all things with a bereaved family member. The idea was so distasteful, he wanted to rinse out his mouth—if the tea weren't undrinkable, that is. And the woman who'd lowered him to this pitiful state sat perched ramrod straight, face impassive, regarding him with cold, milky blue eyes.
He cleared his throat, and pulled together his dignity. "And now, Miss Eurydice, if you might answer the questions I have for you…"
The slight nod of her head was almost imperceptible; she'd turned her face away from him, and was now gazing mutely out the parlor's window.
Sherlock pushed down his irritation, and dove straight in: "How did you get here?"
Slowly, she turned her head round to face him, one eyebrow arched across her alabaster brow. "I took a taxi."
Her expression hadn't changed, but he knew she was mocking him. "That isn't what I meant…"
"Of course not." Her sigh was like the rustle of dry leaves. "Your real question, I cannot answer, if I hope to return…"
"And do you? Hope to return? I have to say, were I in your place, I wouldn't be too eager to go back…"
"There is no other place for me," she answered simply. "The only alternative…it's not to be thought of."
"What is it? The…alternative?"
The cozy little parlor took on a chill when she answered. "Wandering. Endless wandering."
Sherlock considered the idea. "And what is it like? The…place you reside."
She paused as she considered—for the first time, her answer was not at the ready. He was about to ask her again when slowly, she began to speak. "I don't think that is the right word for it—'place'. It is not like a place at all. There is no time, no temperature—no walls and no doors." Unconsciously, she reached out a hand, as if seeking the things she spoke of. "There are things—water, rocks, creatures—but they are not solid. Turn your head, and they are gone…"
When next he began to speak, Sherlock found his throat was dry. In a voice that did not sound like his own, he asked his next question: "Is there peace?" It was not what he had planned to ask, not something he would Iwant/I to know…the word itself, he found absurd. And yet he didn't blink or breathe as he waited for her to answer.
"Peace?" she asked, as if trying to remember what it was. Slowly, she shook her head. "There is no peace…but neither is there pain. And that is some small comfort."
In the ages that it took for him to process her reply, Eurydice began gathering up her tea things, placing them neatly on the tray before her. When she was finished, she rose, and waited for Sherlock to remember her presence. "I think I shall be going now, Mr. Holmes," she whispered, when finally he noticed her.
He rose to his feet, nodding: careful not to meet her eyes.
She led the way back into the kitchen, and he rummaged through the cupboards until he found an old picnic basket of Mrs. Hudson's that Watson had borrowed to take on a outing with Sarah, and had never returned. He lined the wicker with tea towels, and then retrieved the head from his refrigerator. Having a task to perform had restored his calm, and he was thinking clearly again. He frowned into the basket: "It should be kept cold. I have some ice packs Watson uses when he takes his lunch with him to work…"
"It won't be necessary," she assured him softly. "The journey is not long, and where we're going, there is no decay."
He nodded, and continued packing her husband's head in the towels. When he was finished, he closed the lid and picked up the basket, testing its weight: "Not too heavy," he appraised. "You shouldn't have much trouble with it."
She took the burden off his hands. "No, I'll manage quite well; thank you, Mr. Holmes." This last part was said with sincerity.
He walked her to the door of the flat and she turned to say her goodbyes. "Forgive my rudeness, but I hope we do not meet again, Mr. Holmes."
"On the contrary—I could not agree with the sentiment more."
She turned to leave, but with a hand he stopped her: "Eurydice—just one more question, if I may." She nodded. "How is it that you're here? I'm given to understand that no one may leave…"
For the last time, he breathed in the overwhelming scent of ripe and rotting roses as he waited for her answer. Her smile, when she gave it, was sad. "My husband was allowed to leave once. He was a remarkable man, gifted—his music held sway over man, beast, and nature. He moved hardened hearts to pity, and earned for me a pardon—though I was never to claim it… He was a special man, and in his name I asked this favor: that we be allowed to rest together at last. No heart is made of stone, Mr. Holmes—remember that. And fare you well."