His internal alarm clock woke him at 6am, as always. It seemed that his actual alarm clock had conditioned his body to stick to its schedule, whether it was a working day or one of his very few holidays.
Today was one of those rare days off. It was Easter Monday, and he had managed to take the long weekend away from London, to visit his family. Not that they would be about at this hour. His mother normally slept until at least 8, and goodness knew what time his brother would surface, if at all.
Tea and toast, then a shower, then a shave, then dressed. That was his little morning ritual. He padded down the grand stairway and across the lobby into the large kitchen. He gazed out of the window at the grounds as he put the kettle on. The gardener really did do a marvelous job. The old place did look so magnificent in the spring, especially as the first rays of a bright morning fell upon the greenery. Cherry blossom blushed the trees and bright daffodils threw sprays of gay yellow about the lawn. The sun was out, the birds were chirruping and…
And his car was gone.
The kettle rumbled into a boil as he gazed at the empty spot on the driveway where his car had been the night before. Not just any car, either – a beautiful new silver Mercedes. Mother's graduation gift. She'd been so proud.
He had only one suspect for this crime.
He dashed to the coat rack in the lobby and checked the pockets of his jacket. The keys were gone. Swearing now, he ran back up the stairs two at a time, and barged into his brother's bedroom.
It was empty. The bed was a state, but clearly hadn't been slept in that night. On his brother's pillow was a note. The note read; "Nice car".
Still cursing furiously – under his breath so as not to wake his mother – he dashed to his room and threw on a pair of trousers and a jumper, then hurried back downstairs.
He was insured to drive his mother's Land Rover. He left her an apologetic note, took the keys and got into the car. He wondered briefly as he turned on the engine how he should search for his missing vehicle and sibling, but logic told him to make it a narrow search. His brother had never taken a driving lesson in his life. The boy was only 15. He couldn't have got terribly far. As much as this suggested that he would not be looking for long, it filled him with a cold dread as to the state he could expect to find his car and little brother in.
He wasn't wrong. After less than ten minutes of driving around, he found his Mercedes wrapped around a sycamore tree at a sharp bend in a narrow country road.
He slammed on the brakes to the Land Rover and ran to his stricken car. As he approached it, the driver's side window began to whir open, revealing his young brother at the wheel. Relief at his brother being alive and in possession of the mental and physical capacity to open a window found itself at odds with dismay at the state that the child was in. The boy sported a black eye and a swollen, bloodied lip that he certainly hadn't had on Easter Day. Dried blood on his top lip suggested that he'd been dealt a good crack to the nose, as well. Heavens knew how long the boy had been sitting at the wheel, waiting for somebody to find him, but here he was. He extended a hand – index and middle finger out – mocking him. Flicking him the V. Childish. Between the fingers was a newly lit cigarette. Mocking him, still. Even more childish.
He approached the open driver's window and gave his brother a stony glare. The boy stank of cigarettes and cannabis and… and something else. Something he couldn't quite put his finger on. His little brother smiled brightly back at him with puffed, bruised lips.
'Good morning, Mycroft.'
'OK,' said John with a frown. 'Let's go through this again. So… Sybil is the daughter of Cynthia and Richard Fairchild…'
Sherlock sighed theatrically. 'Grace is the daughter of Sybil and Richard Fairchild.'
'And this is Sybil's party we're going to.'
'Correct. Her 65th birthday. Their daughter Grace is married to Rupert Trevor, who's the one that Sybil asked my Mother to ask me to keep an eye on tonight, hence our presence at this festival of tedium.'
John turned a smile towards the taxi window – pointlessly, since Sherlock caught it anyway. 'All dressed-up and huffy because your Mum's making you go to a Family Do.'
'Believe me, I wouldn't be going if it weren't so interesting. It's not just fiddling with the books or his secretary that they suspect their Son in Law of.' Sherlock lowered his voice so that the taxi driver wouldn't be able to hear. 'Arms dealing!' he whispered, excitedly. 'To the Taliban! I mean, isn't that brilliant?'
'You do know it was Taliban Militia that shot me, don't you?'
'So? I'm here to prove what he's up to so that the Fairchilds can put a stop to it, not give him a pat on the back for his efforts.'
Sherlock sat back, and John watched as the odd expression that had been playing over his friend's face since talk of going to the Fairchilds' party had begun crept back, covering the grin of delight that had come with the words "arms dealing". If John didn't know better, he might describe that expression as… well, as nervous.
But that was crazy.
There was something odd about this particular case, though… a different kind of "odd", that was. Sherlock spoke of his family seldom, and had visited his mother only once since John had known him – and that had just been overnight, and under great duress from Mycroft. It was unlike his friend to go so out of his way to help a family friend. And as gleeful as Sherlock sounded as he chatted about arms dealing, John couldn't help but wonder if that wasn't really more the other Holmes brother's department. Sherlock had said something about the Fairchilds wanting to be discreet, and not wanting "Mycroft galumphing all over the place with his surveillance equipment and SWAT Teams". It seemed, though, that Mycroft was of the opinion that ensnaring Rupert Trevor should be his jurisdiction. Only half an hour after Sherlock had agreed to help the Fairchilds, Mycroft had rung. Sherlock had snapped down the phone to him for a few minutes, then hung up. Mycroft had rung again and, from Sherlock's expression of indignation a few minutes after that, had hung up on Sherlock. Sherlock had called Mycroft. And so on, and so on. A couple of phrases had stuck in his mind from what he'd caught of Sherlock's side of the argument. One was "I can handle this", which Sherlock had repeated down the phone to his brother several times. The other was "I'm not a kid any more", which had struck John as strange in itself, never mind the hissed, defensive tone that he had said it in. After an hour or so of hang-up tennis, John had given up and gone to the cinema by himself. By the time John had got back from the cinema, Sherlock had been sitting quietly, staring at his laptop as though the argument with his brother had never happened. John knew Sherlock well enough never to bring it up again.
Another odd detail was that, for the first time that John knew of, Sherlock was going to the party wearing a wire. Mycroft's insistence, apparently. John wondered whether it was this intrusion of Mycroft's surveillance gadgetry upon his work that was causing his friend to be so preoccupied. As for John, he'd be happy if he could get all the names and relationships that Sherlock kept spooling out at him in the right order.
The taxi pulled up at their destination – the driveway of a grand country house.
'So which one's Cynthia, then?' John asked, paying the fare.
'Cynthia is the wife of Victor Trevor – Rupert's older brother,' Sherlock replied, getting out and holding open the door for John.
'And they'll be there, too, will they?'
'Oh, yes. The Trevors and the Fairchilds are all very close. Besides which, Cynthia and Rupert are having an affair.'
John raised his eyebrows at Sherlock. The odd, nervous expression had left him again – replaced this time by a familiar smirk.
'Go on, you're dying to tell me how you know.'
'I've friended them on Facebook.'
John blinked. 'You're on Facebook? I'm on Facebook.'
'Everyone's on Facebook. My mother's on Facebook. I could murder Mycroft for showing her how to do that.'
'You haven't friended me.'
'Well, what would the point of that be? I live with you. If I wanted to know what kind of socks you wore, I'd just go through your sock drawer.'
'So you're one of those people who only uses Facebook to snoop on people?' John barely paused for breath. 'What am I saying? Of course you are. So I take it Cynthia and Rupert are always leaving flirty little wall posts, then?'
Sherlock grinned. 'No. Quite the opposite. If Harriet and Clara were still together, you'd contact Clara on Facebook from time to time, wouldn't you?'
'Still do,' John told him. 'We play Scrabble.' He laughed a little. 'She's a demon at Scrabble. There was this one time, she got "Opaque" on a triple word score, but then I…'
'Not Cynthia and Rupert,' continued Sherlock over him. 'They're both on that wretched website all the time, but they never, ever post anything on the others' page. No comments on each others' status updates, or photos, or anything. They're being overly cautious. Or trying to be, at least.'
'So this Rupert guy isn't just selling rocket launchers to the Taliban, he's sleeping with his Sister-in-Law as well?' John shook his head and laughed. 'You toffs. You're always up to your necks in it, aren't you? Crime, sleaze, all related to one another… you're worse than the chavs on Jeremy Kyle.'
'What do you mean, "you toffs"?' Sherlock retorted, archly.
'You are a toff, Sherlock.'
'Kindly refrain from lumping me in with all those braying, chinless idiots, John.'
They'd reached the front door of the house.
'Admit it, Sherlock. You are a little bit lacking in the chin department.'
Sherlock stared at him for a moment, then knocked loudly on the door, turning his face away from John's.
'At least I don't look like a gnome.'
'No, you look like a Tolkien Elf in Eveningwear.'
Sherlock stopped knocking and pulled his phone from his pocket. John slid him a sideways glance and watched as he pulled up Google.
'T-O-L-K-I-E-N', helped John.
Sherlock glanced at the results of the image search. 'Very funny.'
The door opened, framing an elegant, faintly equine woman in her 60s. Sybil. The hostess. Had to be.
'Sherlock!' She held her hands wide in welcome. 'Thank you so much for coming. It's been too long. When did we see you last…?'
'The Merrick wedding, I think,' breezed Sherlock.
'The Merricks, of course,' replied Sybil in the same fake, sing-song voice. 'Poor loves. How was your train journey?'
John watched with faint amusement as the pair exchanged mundane pleasantries. This was the woman who had put them on the case in the first place, and even though there was nobody else at the door, neither she nor Sherlock were prepared to bring the matter up in conversation. All smiles and chatter on the outside, unspoken schemes lurking beneath. John disguised a staccato laugh as a cough.
'And this must be John,' Sybil beamed, ushering them both through the front lobby. 'The Doctor! We've heard all about you.'
'You have?' John blinked at Sherlock, who caught his eye and gave him a faint shrug of feigned innocence. John thought back again to the postcard received from Sherlock's mother when she had holidayed in Tunisia – addressed to her 'dear John & Sherlock'. Suddenly, John felt a new sense of dread about the approach of Christmas.
'It's mostly us old folk tonight I'm afraid,' said Sybil, guiding them through, but my daughter and her husband's family should be arriving soon.' She stopped at a desk at the end of the lobby and rooted through a drawer. 'You're in room 7, if you wanted to get settled in first.' She pulled a key from the drawer and handed it to Sherlock. 'Top floor. The Do starts at 8. In the function room…'
She was cut off by another knock at the door.
'Do excuse me. Make yourselves comfortable.'
Sherlock smiled brightly at John and jingled the key at him as Sybil left to attend to the newcomers. 'Gives us just under an hour to freshen up. I still smell of Train. Let's take a look at our room.'
John followed, lugging the suitcase with all the recording equipment as Sherlock climbed the stairs lightly.
'I've never been to a house with a function room before,' said John as he struggled. 'Or numbered bedrooms. Anyone would think this was a hotel.'
Sherlock stopped to wait for John to catch up. 'That's because it is. Well – a B&B with a Wedding license, technically. Times are hard.'
John finally caught up with Sherlock. Any hope he might have had of his friend offering to carry the heavy case up the last flight of stairs dissipated as Sherlock turned and started springing up the steps again.
'Even for toffs.'
'Well,' said John, 'gazing at Room 7, 'this is… cozy.'
'It's perfect,' smiled Sherlock. 'Victor and Cynthia will be in room 6…' he pointed at the left wall. 'Rupert and Grace in room 8.' He pointed right, then went to inspect the small window.
'Perfect?' John repeated, incredulously. 'There's only one bed!'
'What does the bed matter?' asked Sherlock, taking off his jacket. 'You weren't intending on sleeping tonight, were you?' He threw the jacket onto the bed and started to remove his shoes and socks. 'Thin partition walls,' he added, now unbuckling his belt. 'This all used to be the Fairchilds' attic, they had it converted into three rooms ten years ago.' He pulled off his trousers and threw them on the bed as well. 'Whatever goes on in this room's going to be pretty audible to the parties either side of us.' He pulled a pair of tatty old trousers and a thin black jumper from his overnight bag. 'We can actually work this to our advantage, though,' he added, putting the new clothes on, 'if you can do enough clonking around for the two of us tonight, it'll provide an adequate distraction.'
'Sherlock,' sighed John as he checked the surveillance equipment, 'what on Earth are you doing?'
Sherlock opened the little window. 'Dry run. Half a mo. Stick the kettle on.'
And with that, Sherlock pulled himself through the window's narrow opening and onto the roof, and disappeared.
John rolled his eyes as he located the room's limited tea making facilities.
'It's like keeping a cat, sometimes,' he said to himself. 'A six foot tall, psychotic cat that smells of oranges and burning. And won't eat its Wiskas.'
There was a knock at the door. John hurried to cover up all the surveillance gear and cautiously went to open it.
'Bergamot,' said Sherlock, standing in the doorway.
'My shampoo. Extract of bergamot. Not orange. And the burning smell comes with the job.'
'How did you… what?'
'I very much doubt that we'll get anything useful out of those ridiculous recording devices,' Sherlock replied. 'This is a 65th Birthday party. I haven't seen Rupert since school – what does Mycroft expect me to say to him to get him to unwittingly incriminate himself – "Hi Rupert, long time no see, speaking of which, how's Al Qaida keeping these days?" No – what we need to do is get hold of his laptop. How long did it take me to get into his room via the roof and out again?'
John shrugged. 'Thirty seconds? Less than a minute, certainly.'
'Good. And you didn't hear anything?'
John shook his head. 'You heard me, though.'
'I was right about the walls. Obviously.' He held out two wrapped teabags. 'They've got Darjeeling in room 8. What have we got?'
Sherlock frowned. 'I'm going to have to have words with Mrs Fairchild about that.' He started changing again.
'Speaking of which,' added John, 'if I can return your attention to the bed…'
'Two single blokes,' prompted John, 'one double bed… and after what Sybil said about me… what exactly has your mother been telling her friends about me and you?'
'You and I,' corrected Sherlock. 'And I'm sure I've no idea what mother's got into her head about our arrangements.'
'Well,' retorted John, 'I'm sure I do.'
'It doesn't exactly matter though, does it?'
'It matters to me.'
'So the idea some people might think we're an item – you don't find that flattering in the slightest?'
'Not really.' John paused. 'Why – do you?'
'As I say,' replied Sherlock, getting back into his formal wear, 'it doesn't matter.'
A little after eight, they left their room in search of the party. The dull thud of a bass line guided them towards a function hall at the back of the house.
John smiled faintly. 'They've got a disco!'
'Yes,' muttered Sherlock in distaste. 'How quaint.'
Sherlock had gone beyond appearing vaguely nervous and was just looking plain uncomfortable. John could tell that he hated wearing the wire – John himself wasn't keen on the earpiece he'd had to disguise as a hearing aid. He wondered why Sherlock was still going through with using the stuff if he thought it was such a useless idea. The only possible reason he could think of was that it was to placate Mycroft, but that was far from being in keeping with Sherlock's usual antagonism towards his brother. There was something wrong about this whole scenario… something wrong about Sherlock's reactions to it, anyway, and John still couldn't put his finger on it.
An elderly man, his face full of bristles, met them as they approached the function room.
'Who's this?' barked the old man. 'Haven't seen these ones before.'
Before either Sherlock or John could draw breath to reply, Sybil wafted to the old man's side, bringing a sharp looking woman in her 30s along with her.
'This is Sherlock, Daddy,' Sybil told the old man. 'He's representing the Holmeses tonight…'
'Ah!' The old man's face lit up in wonder and delight. He grabbed Sherlock's hand and pumped it, enthusiastically. 'Of course! The man from the MOD. What an honour…'
'Daddy,' said Sybil, gently, 'you're thinking of Mycroft Holmes.'
'Sherlock's the Other One,' added the sharp, younger woman.
'Oh,' said the elderly man, the disappointment his tone utterly unchecked. 'The Other One. Yes.' He let go of Sherlock's hand. 'Work for Scotland Yard these days, don't you?'
'With them,' corrected John, quietly.
'If they ask me very, very politely,' added Sherlock with a fake smile. He turned his attention to the younger woman. 'Grace. How are you?'
'Very well, thank you,' Grace told him. And by God, as cold and detached as Sherlock's tone of voice often seemed to John, it was nothing compared to the cool contempt displayed in Grace Fairchild-Trevor's intonation. 'How nice of you to come.'
Grace turned her gaze to John. 'And this is…?'
'John Watson,' John told her.
'Doctor John Watson,' added Sherlock, over him. 'My flatmate.'
'Ohhh,' replied Grace. 'The Doctor. Of course.'
John snuck another accusatory glance at Sherlock.
'Why don't you go and get Sherlock and John mingling with the other youngsters, Grace?' Sybil suggested. 'Daddy, let's get you sat down. Your poor legs!'
'Come on,' Grace ordered. 'Kid's Table's over this way.'
She led them into the darkened function room, towards a table in the corner where three people were already seated. As they walked away, John could hear the elderly man mutter something about "those rumours being true after all". It was going to be a long night.