John looked anxiously at Sherlock, waiting for the taller man's reply. He was trying to stop staring at the body on the ground, the unnatural angle of the neck, the blood on the grass. He'd found it hard to identify the gashes on the man's neck, and Sherlock was still looking at them in detail, magnifying glass in hand, crouched low down in the centre of the field. To focus his thoughts he looked over at the small group of horses standing at the other end of the field, nervously eyeing up the police and themselves.
"Three, so far." The response was so quiet that John nearly missed it. Of course, Sherlock wouldn't just settle for one idea to show off with. After all this time it didn't surprise him anymore, in fact he barely registered it. Sherlock's personal brand of arrogance had become too familiar, too everyday. And the fact he was mostly right always softened it for John, since it wasn't really all that arrogant if you were correct.
It was just that people hated it.
It struck him, once again, how easy Sherlock found it to shrug off the animosity he generated wherever he went. Within two minutes of meeting a total stranger he usually managed to reduce that person to outrage or disbelief, and on occasion tears, yet it meant nothing to him. Only when he upset John did he appear to take some notice.
If John felt jealous he'd squashed that feeling the minute it reared its head. He wasn't like that. He'd never been like that, and he wouldn't want to go down that path. He had closed that door behind him many years ago, and he was happy with where it had got him, on the whole.
Sherlock finally finished his investigations and straightened up. "Large bird of prey," he said with something of surprise in his voice. "Most unusual. We'll take the case, Lestrade."
John cleared his throat. "You did notice the neck isn't actually broken, just very badly twisted?"
Sherlock did a very quick double take, eyes scanning the body once more, taking in the details. He turned to John. "Yes. Clearly."
John suppressed a smile. He'd missed that, then. As they walked back to the road he could feel Sherlock's gaze on him, a silent question boring into his back, how did John see that when he hadn't? Hopefully he'd put it down to his expert medical knowledge soon enough, and forget about it.
It was getting harder, John thought. Something of Sherlock's flamboyance was beginning to rub off, to push through the barriers that John had raised so many years ago. He needed to be more careful. There was no knowing how Sherlock would react if he realised, but John didn't believe he would take kindly to finding out he wasn't the only genius in the room. He resolved to be particularly bumbling for the next few days just to make sure
Back at Baker Street, John made tea and then busied himself with trying to wash up around Sherlock's chemical experiments. Sherlock, meanwhile, spent some time researching raptors on his laptop. It didn't take him long to realise that the gashes could only have come from a bird the size of a large eagle, as John had expected. Sherlock seemed convinced that it must have been a sea eagle, but John wasn't too sure himself. He was beginning to think it was much more likely to have been a vulture. However, he kept his thoughts to himself, especially because they did not have much information to go on as yet. Even he couldn't work without data.
Sherlock got up and stood in front of the window, hands folded under his chin, staring onto the street below. After a while he broke the silence. "So. Two men walk into a field, a large bird of prey flies in out of nowhere, attacks and kills one of the men, then flies off to where it came from while the second man runs off and disappears. No witnesses. Apparently no suspect, or even a motive. We're clearly missing something."
"How do you know that they didn't carry the eagle in with them? It could have been a trained bird." John knew the answer, of course, but he found it helped to draw Sherlock out to get these cases resolved.
"Hmmm, no." Sherlock was still lost in thought, mulling over John's suggestion. "Footprints in the grass. Even the prints the horses made afterwards couldn't mask that both men were perfectly balanced. Carrying a heavy bird like that would have made deeper indentations on one side for the bearer. They weren't out playing at falconry."
"Did the victim have any enemies? Did the police dig up anything?"
"Ronald Freiberger, thirty-seven years old, entrepreneur with a successful business in high-end home accessories, apparently happily married, no children, no debts. He left work at his normal time but did not return home. His business partner reported him missing when he failed to turn up at a dinner later in the evening. Obviously his wife did not suspect anything was amiss until then, as she knew he was going out. He did not tell anyone where he was going, and his diary shows nothing."
Sherlock wandered off to phone Lestrade, while John filed the information, unable to do too much else but draw up a mental timeline. He knew Sherlock would be going to the man's office next, and they would no doubt be visiting his widow. That was not a visit that John was looking forward to, given Sherlock's interpersonal skills, but it was the one that he hoped would be most enlightening. A theory had begun to form in his mind, and it needed feeding facts.
Marie Freiberger was every bit the picture of a distraught widow. She was slight, dark-haired, brown-eyed, with a pretty face that would have been beautiful if it hadn't been for the obvious signs of crying. She opened the door to Sherlock and John nervously, offered them tea but promptly forgot to make it for them, and showed them through to the large dining kitchen of the expensive-looking house on yet another anonymous executive estate.
John and the woman sat at the dining table while Sherlock paced the floor, asking question after question relating to the evening of the death of Mr. Freiberger, her relationship with him, his friends and co-workers, his business partner. She answered them all quietly, not seemingly shaken by Sherlock's brusque manner, occasionally wiping her eyes with a tissue.
Yes, they were happily married, although she had always wanted children. No, she did not know where Ronald had gone on the evening of his death. Yes, when she had spoken to him during the day he had been in good spirits. No, as far as she knew Ronald had no enemies. Yes, she had met some of his employees and his business partner sometimes came for dinner, as he and her husband regularly went riding together. No, they were nothing more than passing acquaintances.
Suddenly, Sherlock stopped in the middle of his pacing and turned to her. "And do you take an interest in falconry, Mrs Freiberger?"
For only a fraction of a second something akin to panic crossed the woman's face, but John saw it and knew that Sherlock had noticed it, too. Then her face hardened, as she said, "If you are suggesting that I had a hand in my husband's death, Mr. Holmes, then I would appreciate it if you asked me to my face. No, I did not have him killed with some… large eagle, since that is what you seem to think happened. Maybe you would be better off asking at the zoo."
As they walked down to the main road afterwards, Sherlock remarked, "She's hiding something, that's obvious. Not quite the bewildered bystander that she would like us to believe her to be."
John nodded in agreement but said nothing. Surely the meeting at the office would make it all fall into place, he thought, as he sorted through the pieces in his head. It was becoming laughably simple if his theory was correct. Almost without thinking he said, "Well, the killer would have to have an accomplice to release the bird, wouldn't they. Otherwise it would all be a bit obvio…" he stopped mid-sentence, just as Sherlock had stopped mid-stride, eyes narrowed, looking intensely quizzical.
John cleared his throat. "Ehm, ignore me. Just talking to myself."
He carried on walking, Sherlock falling in step behind him, but this time there was no mistaking the stare with which Sherlock was trying to dissemble him, to make sense of what had just happened. John waited for the searching question, the piercing remark, but instead there was just silence, a portentous, analysing kind of silence. It was almost as if he could hear the thoughts whirring around Sherlock's head, slotting into place, examining the patterns. It was only a matter of time, John now realised. He kept going.
Ronald Freiberger's office was modern, bright and airy, the window a wall of glass looking out over London. He shared the space with his business partner, two large, modern desks either side of the room, a few strategically placed feature plants, a token couple of filing cabinets. It had all the ambiance of a successful business office, and all the anonymity of it.
Gareth Johnson welcomed them in and dismissed the receptionist. He was a middle-aged man, early forties, heavy-built, with blonde hair that didn't look entirely convincing and a sun tan that suggested he took his holidays abroad. Everything about his dress spoke money, although none of his manner did. He looked drawn, tired, the bags under his eyes speaking volumes about lack of sleep and days or weeks of worry. John wondered if that was just because of his involvement with the murder, or whether the books of Freiberger & Johnson would show some interesting irregularities once they started looking into them.
Sherlock subjected the man to a brief interview, all the while watching him, picking up the obvious clues, and some of the harder ones. John could tell by now, he could read Sherlock better than anyone he had ever known. The man was nervous but tried to suppress it, obviously not wishing to show his tension. He kept rubbing his hands together, realising that he was doing it, and consciously putting them calmly back on his desk, but he obviously didn't understand that it made it all the more clear he was trying to hide something, especially to Sherlock. And, John added as an afterthought, to himself.
The interview was uneventful and on the face of it revealed nothing. According to Mr. Johnson, the last time he saw his business partner was as he left the office on the evening of his murder. He only found out about his death when the police contacted him early that morning, and he was in shock, distraught. He described Ronald Freiberger as his best friend, his rock, and the brains of the business. He even managed to burst into tears, at which point Sherlock concluded the interview and they left as quickly as they could without making it look as if they were running away.
Sherlock was silent in the taxi home. When they got back to 221B Baker Street he made a few quick phone calls, posing as a rich businessman looking to rent a trained bird of prey for an afternoon to impress his clients. It didn't take him very long to find a company unscrupulous enough to be willing to supply him a bird without any further supervision other than twenty minutes' basic training.
It got rather simple after that. When Lestrade came by Sherlock had the whole story ready for him.
"So. It all starts with the Freibergers and their less-than-perfect marriage. To the outside world, they presented a unified front, but on the inside all was not well. She wanted children, to him they presented an inconvenience, and there was a considerable amount of resentment there, enough for her to talk about it at an interview where she knew she should give away as little as possible."
"Enter Mr. Johnson. He and Mrs Freiberger were on rather more intimate terms than she made out, a quick word with the neighbours and a rapid check with the homeless network confirmed that. He was seen around the house regularly, and quite often when Ronald Freiberger was not at home."
"So, an affair then, nothing unusual about that. Had Mr. Freiberger wanted children, it might have even have ended in the simple conception of an illegitimate child. However, it wasn't so straightforward and suddenly Ronald Freiberger became an obstacle. The biological clock was ticking for Maria Freiberger, and between the two of them she and Mr. Johnson decided that instead of going through a messy divorce, they would go for a quicker but less ethical solution, all the while counting on the secrecy of their affair and the solidity of the Freiberger's marriage to be the perfect cover. My guess is that there was a financial motive in it as well, given that Mr. Johnson appears to be living rather above his means. Although I suspect that it was Maria Freiberger who was the driving force behind the whole thing."
"Why they decided to stage a raptor attack we will probably never know. Neither of them had any experience with birds, and maybe that is why they thought it was a good idea – after all it must have seemed far-fetched even to them. In any case, the truth is they found it rather easy to obtain an evening's use of a large bird of prey, which I now believe was a vulture – I can give you the addresses of several organisations that would be more than happy to provide you with a bird like that if you were willing to part with the right amount of money."
So far Lestrade had been keeping quiet, but now his eyebrows were so far up his forehead it was becoming comical. Sherlock simply shrugged and passed him the list, saying, "Yes. That's something else the Met might want to look into. Or you might pass it on to the RSPCA. I do believe that one of these numbers will give you the people that sourced the bird for Mr. Johnson, although I suspect he was clever enough not to use his real name."
Lestrade pocketed the list and Sherlock continued. "On the evening of the murder, both Gareth Johnson and Maria Freiberger told all the relevant people, in an off-hand kind of way, that Mr. Freiberger would be going out for dinner with his business partner. Just before Ronald Freiberger left, however, Mr. Johnson asked him to meet him a little earlier outside a local field. They both shared a passion for horses, and it would have been an easy ruse – he probably told him he was considering purchasing one of them."
"Meanwhile, Maria Freiberger had taken possession of the bird, and was waiting some way off – anything up to a mile or so from the site, probably in a high place, with a view of the field. She would have almost certainly been entirely unobserved."
"While Ronald Freiberger is looking at one of the horses, Gareth Johnson delivers a blow to his head that in itself might have killed him outright, but at least knocked him unconscious. My guess is that the post-mortem will show the latter. With his victim on the ground, Mr. Johnson exposes his throat and calls in the bird. The rest, as they say, is biology."
Lestrade gave a humourless laugh. "Well. And I thought I'd seen it all. One thing though, Sherlock. There is very little evidence in all this."
"On the contrary. The affair between the two perpetrators is readily confirmed by a number of witnesses. That immediately casts doubt on Maria Freiberger's statements, which you can easily use as a lever to apply enough pressure to make her talk. Gareth Johnson is a bag of nerves already – having been lead by Mrs. Freiberger I think he is now wholly regretting everything - and I suspect with the right approach will readily confess, especially if you confront him with the accounting irregularities of his company. Besides, the people that supplied them with the vulture should be able to ID either or both of them for you."
Lestrade still looked a little dubious. Sherlock rolled his eyes. "Listen, I am quite happy to speak to Mrs. Freiberger on your behalf. I can guarantee you will have a confession within ten minutes. But it might not look too good on the Met, and it is likely she will come out emotionally damaged."
At this, Lestrade held up his hands. "Fine, no, thank you. I'll get one of my officers on it."
John couldn't suppress a smile as Lestrade left, obviously in a hurry not to take Sherlock up on his offer. He was on his way to the kitchen to make tea when Sherlock's voice stopped him. "John."
He swallowed, and stopped. He knew what was coming and was not looking forward to the conversation. He turned around, only to find that Sherlock had quietly come up behind him and was standing only inches away. He managed to stop himself from jumping backwards, but there was no getting away from Sherlock's scrutinising gaze.
"When did you know?"
John couldn't help himself, the practised answer slipped out before he could stop it. It was so easy playing dumb that it had become an automatic reaction. He didn't even have to break eye contact. "Know what?"
However, Sherlock was not about to let this one go. "The murder, John. How it was staged. And by who. And their motives."
For an instant John wondered if he could just pretend that he hadn't worked it out at all, that he had never known, but Sherlock was ahead of him. "I would appreciate an honest answer, for once."
It made John stop. He didn't have to be a genius to read between the lines of that statement. It had come to this, then. Their friendship on a knife edge, and a few minutes, the right choice of words, to try and save it. If he could. After all, Sherlock must have realised by now that this was not the first time that John had seen through a case but not said anything. He would be steadily working out what else there was that John hadn't told him.
John cleared his throat and looked away. "In the field, when I realised that the body had been positioned like that on purpose, with its neck exposed, for the bird to do its work. I realised there would have been at least two people involved, because of the footprints. And then when we met Mrs. Freiberger it was obvious that she was hiding something, so she was then a main suspect. Our talk with Gareth Johnson only confirmed my suspicion that it was those two who had set the whole thing up."
There. He'd put it plainly, not left anything out, been as truthful as he could, and tried to be as neutral as possible. He looked back at Sherlock, wondering what the response was going to be. Sherlock was just looking at him, no obvious expression on his face. "Why didn't you say anything?"
John shrugged. "I didn't need to. You were on top of it as quickly as I was."
He tried to move off, to put some space between them, but Sherlock quickly took his arm. "Not the first time, is it, John."
John stared at Sherlock's hand holding onto him, somehow transfixed on this gesture. They weren't done yet, not out of the water, and there was no getting away from the confrontation. He couldn't even tell whether Sherlock was angry or not. That in itself was a bad sign. He decided to stick with truthful, since Sherlock would be able to see through anything else immediately anyway. "No. No it wasn't."
The silence went on for much longer than John was comfortable with. Then, finally, Sherlock let go of his arm and moved to the window, looking out across Baker Street. It was a long time before he said anything at all.
"Why did you feel the need to lie to me?"
John, still standing where Sherlock had left him, shook his head, no. That was so typical of Sherlock, to bring it back to himself. "No, you don't understand. This is not about you, Sherlock. This is about me."
Sherlock turned around, face still expressionless, calculating, and entirely closed to John. "Explain."
John sighed, not sure where to begin. "I don't know what it was like for you when you were growing up, but where I lived there was nothing cool about being clever. Being tough was what counted, and if you showed any sign of being a smartass there were kids that would beat that out of you soon enough."
John rubbed the back of his neck, looking for words, while Sherlock just observed him. John was grateful that he hadn't felt the need to insert some sardonic comment. He took another deep breath, trying to think where to take this next.
"When I joined the military it wasn't much better. You have to be part of the group, there is no place for the clever outsider. There were plenty of drill sergeants who would dream up creative punishments for those who came over too smart. By the time I got to Bart's any wish to appear clever had been drummed out of me, effectively. I don't even think anyone ever noticed. It was so much easier that way, you know, being normal. It became a habit then. And what happened next, with Afghanistan and all that, well, there just wasn't even time to think about being clever. We were just in the thick of it, doing our jobs."
He looked at Sherlock, who was still just watching him from the window. There was nothing in his face to give John any clue what he felt. After a while Sherlock walked back over to him, studying him as he would do with a suspect, or a corpse. "And then you met me," Sherlock said, "and you thought it better to keep your own council, because there was no knowing what would happen if I found out how clever you were, and you were afraid I would feel threatened and throw you back out into the tedium of London on an Army pension." There was no mistaking the hint of amusement in Sherlock's tone of voice. John suddenly felt foolish more than anything.
He returned a wry smile. "Something like that. It has become a habit, Sherlock. You are different. You… you shine when you do this stuff. And you don't care what anyone thinks. I have no wish to be showing off anymore, to stand out, to be the clever weirdo that nobody likes. I'm happy where I am."
Sherlock caught the double meaning in his last words instantly. "Yes."
He walked around John now, slow thoughtful circles, all the while watching him, and John felt more like a sample than ever. He had nothing else to add, really, so he kept quiet and waited for Sherlock's next observation. After another few circuits Sherlock stopped in front of him.
"There are very few people that could hide anything so enormous from me for nearly a year, John Hamish Watson."
John raised his eyebrows. He hadn't even realised that Sherlock knew his full name.
"I am not going to pretend to be upset, because I am not, although I would have appreciated your full thoughts on a number of the cases we have been involved in in the past months."
John let out a breath that he hadn't realised he was holding. He hadn't been aware quite how apprehensive he had been of Sherlock's reaction. Before he could say anything though, Sherlock cut across him. "However," and he sounded much sharper than John had expected, and it pulled him up. Maybe they weren't done yet, maybe it wasn't quite as straightforward as it had sounded.
Without any conscious thought on his part he found himself almost standing to attention, and Sherlock couldn't suppress a small, lopsided smile before continuing. "I will not tolerate any further pretence on your part, at least where I am concerned. I don't care what you make anyone else believe, but I expect you to be truthful with me, John."
It was fascinating, John thought, how Sherlock naturally assumed he was in charge, and in a position to make demands. On the other hand he had a point, since it was John who had been living the lie for so long, and in a way Sherlock had been on the receiving end of it. He guessed there was some penance to pay after that, although being asked to actually be himself for the first time in his adult life hardly felt like a punishment.
He cleared his throat again. "I can live with that."
Sherlock regarded him a moment with a look of satisfaction. "Good."
After another few seconds of studying John he abruptly turned round, picked up his violin and positioned himself in front of the window again. Within seconds the sound of music filled the apartment.
For a moment John was at a loss, being left standing there like that. He wasn't quite sure what he had been expecting. Then routine took over, as if none of it had happened, and everything slotted back into place. He made his way to the kitchen.