John had never been surrounded by so many penises. The study's dark-panelled Edwardian interior had been turned into a museum of erotic art. Ceramic sailors frolicked under a drawing of swimmers doing very complicated underwater exercises, while on the other side of the room, a soldier was enjoying a spanking from his superior officer, a clear violation of military protocol. The worst offender was the painting directly behind the desk. "Lido and the Swan" said the metal plaque attached to the frame. The angry white bird who tugged at the sheet half-heartedly wrapped around Lido appeared to be a duck. Lido was running away, but his erection suggested he wasn't completely averse to the attention. DONALD DUCK, John wrote in his notebook. The outside of Lord Balmoral's house had been so unremarkable, sedate foliage hiding it from its neighbours in St. John's Wood.
"And that's why I want to hire you, Mr Holmes," Lord Balmoral said. John tried to focus on the conversation. He'd given up on guessing Lord Balmoral's age—either an energetic ninety year old who always ate his vegetables, or a sixty-something addicted to cigarettes. The room's décor was a strike against the healthy lifestyle theory.
"I really think you should call the police. They can't be relied on for thinking, but they are quite good when it comes to intimidation and they probably won't steal the cash," Sherlock said.
The case was even duller than Sherlock had expected. Two young men who claimed to be from the auction house had shown up, loaded a Turner worth a couple of million into an unmarked van, and driven away with it. Since they would never be able to sell the painting on the open market, they offered to return it in exchange for some cash. A simple, efficient, and boring crime.
London's interesting criminals must have decided to take up healthy hobbies like golf or hiking in the Lake District, and even Moriarty, after taking a few minutes to break in and rearrange the furniture, had been quiet lately. Usually during slow periods, Sherlock would amuse himself with Lestrade's cold cases, spinning theories that would never stand in court, but he wanted the memory of what had happened between them the other day to fade before they saw each other again. He'd carefully stashed his memory of the kiss in a dark attic corner of his mind palace, but he kept waking up to find it waiting for him at the breakfast table.
"I was told not to contact the police."
"That's usually what criminals say; feel free to ignore it," Sherlock said. "The police are your best option, especially since you need the money quickly. You've got a house up north you can't sell, badly in need of repairs, and your recent losses in Macau have left you with some heavy debts and very unsympathetic creditors." Sherlock waited for Lord Balmoral to ask how he knew about Macau.
"I prefer to have as little to do with the police as possible… one might say there is a history."
"Didn't you get my number from a policeman?"
"Nina Lestrade was kind enough to give me your number when she heard about the theft. She sold me a picture once and..." Lord Balmoral's expression became wistful, and Sherlock and John were afraid he was going to start telling another story. Earlier, he had taken almost an hour to tell them how "The Falls of the Reichenbach" had come to be in his possession, a story that could have been summarised as "purchased by my grandfather."
"There's really nothing—" Sherlock stood up and reached for his coat.
"I first met Greg Lestrade the night of my fiftieth birthday, twenty years ago, no, more than that," Lord Balmoral continued as if he hadn't seen Sherlock preparing to leave. "The party was attended by a hundred of my closest friends, but I felt the chill of approaching winter. I went for a stroll to gather my thoughts, and found myself in a place… when we met, his eyes were so kind and understanding, I wanted to offer him the world. I suggested I was willing to financially recompense him for certain services, 500 pounds and a weekend in Spain."
"So when you said you knew him, you meant he arrested you," Sherlock said.
"Twice. I saw him a year later, very tight trousers."
"But you knew he was a policeman," John said.
"One has hopes. A word of advice, young man," Lord Balmoral glared suddenly at John. "Never give your full name and don't talk about the money. Real prostitutes aren't shy about asking for it, coppers don't like to because you can argue entrapment. Don't mention drugs; even if you need a little bump first…" His eyes grew wistful.
"I will take your case," Sherlock announced.
"Good, good. They'll send a car around at 8 tonight. I took the liberty of making business cards for you both." He rummaged in his desk and pulled out two sheets of perforated paper. "False identities, eh? Like a spy novel."
"Robert Smith from the Getty? Am I playing an American?" John asked. The museum's logo had lines running through it and John suspected that the ink in Lord Balmoral's printer had not been changed in years.
"You're hoping I'll sell privately and cheaply in exchange for your help. I wrote the story down somewhere…" Lord Balmoral began to shuffle through the papers on his desk.
Sherlock was very quiet as they walked back to the flat. "Thinking," was his abrupt response whenever it looked like John was going to ask a question.
"I suppose you're wondering how I knew he'd been to Macau," Sherlock finally said.
"Not really. He's a bit like the Ancient Mariner, isn't he, only with prostitutes instead of an albatross. Are we really going to get in a car driven by god knows who, going to god knows where, carrying a duffel bag with half a million pounds?"
"Euros. They're lighter."
"It's really unfortunate that you'll be murdered along with me because you won't be able to investigate our deaths. We should at least tell our friend at the Yard about our plans for tonight."
"No. They said no police."
"But… you just said that's what they say."
Sherlock picked up his violin. The discussion was clearly over.
John listened to Sherlock play. He hadn't listened to much classical music before moving to Baker Street, but he'd started to hear correlations between composers and Sherlock's mood. When he was frustrated with a case, modernists. The spiky fingerings required his full concentration and would give him the distance he needed to work through the problem. Between cases, he would often work on his own compositions, sweet melodies John wanted to believe revealed Sherlock's softer side.
John was right, it would be safer if they told Lestrade what they were going to do, but if he called, Lestrade would want to talk. Four days ago they'd kissed, or to be accurate, Sherlock had kissed Lestrade. He'd been smug and annoying and something else and Sherlock had wanted to help him stop feeling whatever he was feeling. I wanted him to stop talking, so I kissed him. I wanted him to feel better, so I kissed him. I wanted to know what he tasted like, so I kissed him. There'd been a flood of texts afterwards, starting with what happened where are you? and ending with call me when you're ready.
It was going to be awkward.
"Lido and the Swan" turned out to conceal a very big safe, but fifty thousand euros wasn't very impressive, especially bundled in a nylon tote bag.
"The money wasn't in there this morning," Sherlock said after Lord Balmoral returned to the house.
"He went to the bank?"
Sherlock shook his head, but didn't seem interested in explaining.
The Mercedes that pulled up had windows so dark it was impossible for passengers in the back to see outside, but Sherlock had his own internal GPS. He leaned back, casual and relaxed, but John could feel that he was completely alert. The driver was silent, letting the Chinese characters tattooed across the back of his thick neck and across his fists do the talking for him.
"Let me guess, love and hate in Chinese," John said.
"It's fairly clever. The idea is that we focus on the tattoos and forget about his actual face. If the police ever do swing by for an interview, he'll be scrubbed clean as an innocent babe."
The driver did not like that at all.
"I've been thinking about adding a section to my website about distinguishing between real and temporary tattoos. Tattoos, like everything, are subject to the whims of fashion, so if you look at his hands, the design is dated, but the ink appears new."
"Can you read it?"
"It looks like writing I came across when I studied baritsu in Japan."
The driver moved his hands to the bottom of the steering wheel, out of Sherlock's sight.
"I didn't know you'd been to Japan. What's baritsu?"
"It's a martial art that combines the best of judo, karate, ninjitsu, and capoeira. It's quite difficult, and although it is my invention, I'm not yet comfortable calling myself a master. We're finally crossing Vauxhall Bridge."
"Yes, I'm a founding member of the International Baritsu Association."
John resisted the urge to ask how many members there were in total. He'd thought it was a dream, the night he'd come down to the kitchen and found Sherlock kicking at the ceiling.
"Leaving Wandsworth Road," Sherlock said. "We really could have taken the tube."
The car stopped in front of a red brick industrial building that had been converted into offices. The street was choked with cars, some half-parked on the pavement as if they were hoping to crawl away from the street unnoticed. A white glazier's van was parked at the rear of the building, but they hadn't started work yet, strips of plastic still covered the building's few windows. From the third storey, CCTV kept a careful watch on the street. John turned his face towards it, the first victim entered the building at 20:24, they would say.
Fresh paint and cigarette smoke dominated the ground floor. "Fairco Trading Corp Ltd" was the only company listed on the board next to the lift. John pressed the button, but nothing happened.
Sherlock swung the bag back and forth as they climbed the stairs.
"You're looking cheerful. Planning on doing a runner with the money?" John asked.
"I thought tonight was going to be dull. It is, but it is going to be a different kind of dull than I originally anticipated, and it may lead to something better."
Three men were waiting for them – track suits, Glocks shoved in their waistbands, dark sunglasses, gold chains draped around the skinny, pale neck of their leader. Gangland had clearly suffered a sartorial decline since the time of the Krays.
"Is that it?" Gold Chains was perplexed by the gym bag.
"Half a million euros," Sherlock said.
"Euros... what the fuck are you playing at?" A tracksuit demanded.
"We've got the picture, now we want the product." The other tracksuit pulled a drop cloth away from the wall and revealed the painting.
Terrified men struggled against a violent sea; the mast of the ship pointed away from the fragile light of the sky and pulled them towards the storm. It was beautiful, but it was definitely not a waterfall. It was Rembrandt's The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, which had been stolen back in 1990.
"Slide the bag towards us," Gold Chains ordered.
"No," Sherlock said.
Both tracksuits had their hands on their guns. John wished he'd brought his gun even though they still would have been outnumbered.
"It's good that you didn't," Sherlock said. He dropped the tote bag. "No need for that, we're all friends here."
The driver burst through the door, red and wheezing from running up the stairs. The ink on his neck was smeared with sweat. "It's not them," he gasped. He pointed at Sherlock. "He's Sherlock Holmes!"