Jenny muttered to herself as she climbed, carefully avoiding the dodgy fifteenth stair which creaked like a bugger and would almost certainly wake Cromwell. She'd already dropped two saucers and a ketchup bottle this morning; the last thing she needed was to be bowled over on the stairs by an over-enthusiastic red setter. Mrs Aspenhurst would not be pleased.
Reaching the top, she double checked that everything was still in place on the tray in her hands, then looked across the landing to Room 5, whose current resident had demanded breakfast in his room for each morning of his stay.
The hotel was not a large one, more of a glorified guest house really, but a proper English breakfast they could certainly manage, even if Chef Jacques (real name Walter) had to be forcibly prevented from seasoning everything to the point where you needed good lighting to be entirely sure what you were eating.
One last check… everything looked fine. Jenny walked across to the door and, balancing the heavy tray carefully in one hand, managed to tap on it without letting anything lurch too drastically to the side.
"Mr Mason?" she called, her voice low so as not to unduly disturb the guests on either side. "Mr Mason, I have your breakfast."
There was no reply. She knocked again, slightly louder this time. Hotel policy was to enter after a second knock unless the door was bolted so, when there was no response, Jenny tried the handle. It turned easily and she pushed the door ajar, poking her head around it without fully entering the room.
The main portion of the bedroom couldn't be seen from the doorway due to the en-suite bathroom on the left, but there was no sign of life.
"Room Service," Jenny called more stridently. Clutching the tray with both hands again, she nudged the door wider with her hip and eased her way in. A quick glance into the en-suite confirmed that it was empty and looked just as she had left it the day before. Despite having only been at the hotel for three months, Jenny had already experienced what she felt was far more than her fair share of sudden appearances by the inadequately towelled.
She caught sight of herself in the mirror as she passed, her wispy blonde hair already wresting itself free from the bun she'd managed to skewer it into only half an hour before. No matter how much she tried to assume the professional image which Mrs Aspenhurst exuded so effortlessly, such glamour perennially escaped Jenny. Perhaps it was a height thing? Much easier to 'glide' at five foot seven than it was at five foot one. Probably the freckles didn't help, either.
Jenny rounded the corner. The room was only dimly lit from the early morning sun poking around the heavy curtains, but Mr Mason was clearly still in bed.
It was equally clear that he would not be leaving the bed under his own steam. Not today. And not ever again.
Lestrade held the phone away from his ear and grimaced as the tinny stream of remonstrances continued to squawk at him.
"Donovan…" he addressed the phone firmly.
"No, Sir. No, you can't!"
Lestrade pushed as much 'senior officer' into his voice as he could manage. "I'm on my way there now," he announced, feeling reasonably satisfied with the finality of his tone.
Eyes rolling, Lestrade sighed. It was ironic that the one person who could effectively shut Donovan up was the one she would never shut up about.
"What choice do we have? We've got a dead body, a finite suspect pool, and some kind of celebrity threatening to kick up the mother of all stinks if she's not allowed to leave this evening. It's New Year's Day, we're on a skeleton staff, and most of the officers we do have are so hung-over they couldn't spot a clue if it had a chalk outline. We need him."
The silence from the other end of the phone was of a distinctly mutinous nature, but still blessedly welcome.
"You interviewed everyone this morning, the same as I did." Lestrade pressed home his advantage. "Do you have any idea which one is our shooter?"
"We just need a bit more…"
"We don't have any more time," Lestrade cut her off. "Keep investigating. I'll be back shortly."
He hung up before she could get into her stride again, looking around as his driver turned onto Montague Street.
"Just drop me anywhere along here," he instructed, regarding the utter lack of parking spaces with considerable disfavour. They never had this problem on the telly.
"Yes, Sir," Waters replied smartly, which was a nice reminder that not all junior officers saw it as their life's work to challenge his every instruction.
"I won't be long," Lestrade told her, climbing out of the police car as soon as it stopped. "Just drive around the block a couple of times."
"Yes, Sir," Waters agreed, tucking her dark hair behind her ear.
"Or pull in, if you see a spot."
"Very good." Lestrade shut the door on a final, 'Yes, Sir.' Not the most stunning conversationalist, Waters, but an excellent driver - despite being so short her feet barely reached the pedals. Lestrade had nearly brained himself with his kneecap the last time he'd tried to squeeze behind the wheel after she'd had the car.
The door he was approaching swung open before he could even raise his hand to knock on it, six foot four of belligerent Scotsman appearing in the gap.
"About bloody time you lot got here!" declared the ginger haired behemoth, his extensive sideburns quivering with outrage. "Twelve hours ago, I phoned you. Twelve hours!"
"Um…" said Lestrade.
"I dinnae ken where the bugger's got to! That's your job." A sausage-like finger jabbed perilously close to Lestrade's face. "There's been nae sign of his scrawny arse since he blew up the second floor kitchen." The finger pulled back and waved towards the house behind.
"Right…" said Lestrade.
"Fireworks, he said!" The man's face had been florid to begin with, but was now heading rapidly for a shade of puce which clashed horribly with his whiskers. "Blamed the noise on the fireworks! As if I dinnae ken when an explosion's gone off in my own bloody hoose!"
"So you don't know where…"
"Smoke pouring down the stairs!" Tufted nostrils were now joining in the quivering. "'Do I look like a loon?' I asked him!"
Lestrade winced. Judging from the Scot's expression, that question had been met with a predictably offensive response.
"Right, well we'll get on to that immediately," he promised, backing away before his lapel became further endangered by the large hand twitching towards it. "I don't suppose you have any idea where he might..."
"I've got his phone!" The explanation of why a morning's worth of calls had gone unanswered was abruptly brandished under Lestrade's nose. "So the wee bugger'll be back!"
"Excellent work." Lestrade took a quick step forward and swiped the phone before it could be re-pocketed. "I'll need that for evidence."
The Scotsman gaped at him in outrage. Seeing a familiar flash of police colours out of the corner of his eye, Lestrade made a strategically speedy retreat towards the road just as Waters approached on her first lap.
"We'll be in touch!" he lied earnestly over his shoulder, allowing the deluge of 'nae's to bounce off him as he reached for the door handle.
"Keep going!" he hissed to Waters, hastily strapping himself in and raising his free arm in a wave to the unhappy Scot who seemed on the brink of storming the vehicle.
"Sir, I think you should..."
Lestrade sat back in his seat, letting out a frustrated sigh as the car lurched away. "Of all the times to get himself bloody well evicted."
"Sir, I…" Waters began, but the driver of an abruptly cut-off Range Rover blared his horn at them and she broke off in order to convey a warning about the inadvisability of beeping at police vehicles, utilising a series of hand gestures so pointed that Lestrade was forced to upwardly revise his assessment of her communication skills.
His eyes fell to the phone still clutched in his fist. "I suppose it might be worth checking his contacts..."
"I'll take that."
Were it not for a level of stoicism of which most men could barely dream, Lestrade might have succumbed to the urge to shriek at a pitch dangerous to dogs as a pale hand appeared over his shoulder and snatched the phone from his grip. He jerked his head around to gape at the six-foot lunatic who had just sat up in the back of his car.
"Bloody hell!" was Lestrade's opener of choice. "What…"
"I'm sorry, Sir," Waters broke into his train of disbelief. "I tried to tell you."
"Next time," Lestrade addressed her while keeping his eyes fixed on Sherlock, who was already ignoring everything that wasn't his phone, "try harder."
"Yes, Sir." Waters said apologetically. "He was lurking…"
"Observing," snapped Sherlock.
"…on the street corner," Waters pressed on. "And I knew you were looking for him, of course. So I…"
"...indulged in some sort of fantasy where you picked me up for soliciting?" suggested Sherlock, glancing up at her. "Going by the state of your complexion. Not to mention your…"
"Right," interjected Lestrade quickly, as Waters' cheeks threatened to reach egg-frying temperatures. The 'Sherlock effect' covered a surprising range of reactions across those officers whose paths he had crossed and not everyone came down as firmly as Donovan on the 'loathing' side of the fence. Or, at least, not without leaving a 'still would' shaped gap in the carpentry. Truth be told, Lestrade wasn't entirely sure that even Donovan herself wouldn't… well… wouldn't. Ahem. Mentally giving his brain a quick spin on the rinse cycle, he focused back on the matter at hand.
"So, since you've managed to get yourself thrown out of your third flat in a year, how would you feel about a spot of investigation at a small hotel in Bromley? Accommodation provided - two nights minimum, even if you manage to solve the case in five minutes. How does that sound?"
"Desperate," retorted Sherlock. "As the number of calls you've placed to me this morning would seem to confirm." He raised his phone in emphasis of the point, before tucking it away inside his immaculately tailored jacket. Were it not for a slightly singed edge to the collar of his pale grey shirt, you wouldn't guess that he'd seen in the New Year by causing an eviction-worthy explosion, nor that he'd presumably spent the rest of the night and morning skulking around waiting for an opportunity to retrieve his stuff without getting turned into haggis.
Lestrade gritted his teeth. "Will you come?"
"It's not another serial so-called suicide, by any chance?"
"What?" Lestrade glanced at Waters, who looked back at him with equal confusion before returning her eyes to the road.
"October 12th… November 26th…" Sherlock raised his eyebrows questioningly. "Dear God, is there no one in the Met. capable of spotting a similarity? Perhaps you should ditch your subscription to 'Moron of the Week' and consider taking a 'Join the Dots' publication instead?"
"Never mind that." Lestrade shook his head, refusing to be diverted. "This is a murder - and right up your street."
"My 'streets' don't usually run to Bromley," Sherlock replied with a sniff.
"It's only half an hour's drive," Lestrade pointed out. "More or less. Still technically 'London'," he added encouragingly.
"Kent," Sherlock dismissed, throwing in a lip curl for added disparagement.
Something prodded at the back of Lestrade's mind. "Doesn't your brother live in…"
"So, what's the case?" Sherlock asked, sitting forward in his seat. "You may as well fill me in."
"Right." Lestrade pushed aside considerations of brothers, morons, and suicides that possibly weren't - making a note to check into the last one later - and marshalled his thoughts, twisting his body sideways so that he could communicate without having his neck craned at quite such an uncomfortable angle.
"Victim is a 'John Mason'. Late thirties. Sales rep, according to his papers, although Donovan reckons there's something fishy about them."
Sherlock quirked one eyebrow to his 'deductions made by police officers are almost inevitably wrong' position. Lestrade directed his remarks to the other one.
"Found dead in his bed this morning. One shot to the head. The gun was in his hand and the death was originally reported - at just after nine o'clock this morning - as a suicide. But Anderson almost immediately ruled that out."
He waited for the second eyebrow to rise, but was foiled as Sherlock merely sent the first one higher.
"We've got a limited number of suspects but we can't hold them for long and so far no one's sticking out," he continued. "We need…"
"Me. Yes, clearly," Sherlock commented with his customary modesty. Lestrade heard an emphatic breath leave Constable Waters and determinedly assumed that it was a sigh of exasperation. If it was any other kind of sigh, he didn't want to know about it.
"So, someone's kicking up a fuss?" Sherlock went on. "Can't be the staff. Not if they're so desperate to keep things quiet that they're offering free accommodation."
Lestrade thought back to Mrs Aspenhurst's quick acceptance at his suggestion of bringing Sherlock in to resolve matters, and was forced to concede the point.
"Got a VIP, have you?" There was derision in Sherlock's voice as he continued. "Can't be much of one if they're staying at some poky guest house in the back of beyond."
"Bromley is hardly… And I said 'hotel'! A small hotel."
"Well, there's the owner, Mrs Aspenhurst, who is also the manager. She seems…" Lestrade paused, having found her difficult to assess. "… efficient," he went with in the end.
"Then a chef in his twenties, who speaks broken French with an Oldham accent." He grimaced in recollection of the 'brunch' pressed upon him earlier. "I'd avoid the… well… food. Sorry."
Sherlock waved away the subject of food. "Go on."
"And a maid - Jenny. Who apparently does everything else. Including the discovery of John Mason's body this morning. Seems a sweet girl. Young. Perhaps a bit scatty, but that could be the shock, of course."
"Half a dozen of them - well, five now."
"And how many empty rooms?"
"None," Lestrade admitted.
"Guest house," Sherlock confirmed.
Lestrade ignored him. "So, the residents. Starting with 'Miss Nita', and her personal assistant, Daniel. I don't actually know that she's a celebrity, but she does look vaguely familiar. Plus, she has the 'Don't you know who I am?' glare down pat."
"Must have, if it works on people who don't know who she is," Sherlock observed.
Lestrade ignored that too. "She's American. Already threatening me with Ambassadors and International Incidents. I doubt she has anything to do with the murder, but…"
"Quite. Who else?"
Lestrade quickly ran through the remaining suspects in his mind. "Mrs Sidebottom. Or 'Siddy-boe-tom', as she insists on pronouncing it. Middle aged. Social climber. Possibly has some kind of nasal problem, since she wears enough perfume to fell an ox. Again, can't see her as our shooter, but you never know."
"I think in her case it would be quite easy to know, but do carry on."
Lestrade forced himself not to ask. "James Wilmington," he continued. "Musician."
Sherlock's nose twitched like a chocoholic unexpectedly in range of Cadbury World. "Oh? What instrument?"
"No idea." Lestrade shrugged the shoulder that wasn't wedged against his seat.
Sherlock's interest dropped a few notches and Lestrade felt a ridiculous regret that he hadn't been able to provide a concert pianist. He pushed the sentiment down.
"Finally, Philip Beech. Ex-Navy man. Seems a good sort, but again…"
"... you never know," finished Sherlock. "And by 'you', clearly I mean…"
"…everyone who isn't you. Yeah, yeah. Fine. Solve this one before bedtime and you can brag all you like."
Lestrade twisted back around to sit properly in his seat before an expression which would no doubt reached new heights of superciliousness had the chance to fully form.
"Do you want to know about the victim's room?" he offered. "What people have said of their movements, and so forth?"
"No," Sherlock replied immediately. "My own impressions will be more useful."
He sounded distracted and Lestrade half turned his head to see what he was up to. Waters took her eyes off the rear-view mirror long enough to meet his glance.
"Phone," she mouthed, and indeed, Sherlock once again seemed engrossed in his BlackBerry. Perhaps he was secretly addicted to Bejeweled, Lestrade decided. The thought made him smile.
The roads were predictably quiet and it was less than half an hour later that they arrived at 'The Poplars', pulling up on the curved gravel driveway which seemed to have acquired several additional police vehicles during Lestrade's absence. Something was clearly up.
The front door swung open before he'd even got free of his seatbelt, Donovan emerging like a jack from its box. She reached the car in three strides, an announcement clearly bursting to break free, but her face changed as Lestrade opened his door and she visibly swallowed the words in her mouth as exultation gave way to spite.
"Back where you belong, eh, freak?" she demanded, leaning down to peer into the vehicle. "Feel familiar, does it? Back seat of a police car."
"That's enough!" Lestrade snapped at her, throwing his door wide as he climbed out so that she was forced to step back a pace. Sherlock's police record had mysteriously become clean around the same time that he did, but no amount of string pulling by his enigmatic brother could wipe the minds of officers who'd witnessed his 'Junkie often found at crime scenes' years.
Lestrade moved to the rear door of the car and opened it, allowing Sherlock to emerge, which he did in an extravagance of coat swirling, the colour high in his cheeks.
"Ah, Sally. A joy, as always." He managed to stand a little too far into her space, yet simultaneously lean away from her with the air of a man who's had something unpleasant thrust under his nose. "I would say that I hope you've left some deductions for me… but it seems such a superfluous wish."
"Well, that's where you'd be wrong!" Donovan declared, thankfully steered back onto her original track. She turned to Lestrade.
"We've got the shooter," she announced. "So it's the freak who's superfluous, after all." She curled her lip in Sherlock's direction, but didn't look at him.
"Turns out one of the residents isn't who he says he is," she reported, beginning to walk towards the house. Lestrade fell into step beside her, waving at Sherlock to follow as Constable Waters brought up the rear.
"Anderson found one of his finger prints on the clip of the gun," Donovan went on. "So we had him on that... but then when we ran the prints, we discovered that 'James Wilmington' is a fake ID."
She paused in the doorway and grinned triumphantly over her shoulder, her eyes seeming drawn to Sherlock as she produced her solution to the crime. "His real name's Watson," she declared, throwing the name into his face like a challenge. "John Watson."
Credit to: beta Ariane DeVere; Scot-picker Vicky (the main reason I am tempted to give Sherlock's ex-landlord more than a cameo role); and mistwalker86 for knowing everything there is to know about guns, and being willing to share her expertise with someone who's only ever seen a gun once (and actually it might have been a water-pistol).
UPDATE, Feb. 2014: Sincere apologies for the extended delay with this story - 'Real Life' kind of imploded round about the time I posted the first chapter and everything just... stopped.
It's good... it needed to happen... but getting divorced is serious business, and I'm afraid creativity took a nose dive.
In happier, and semi-related news, I've totally fallen in love with Br0-Harry :)