A/N: Rated Awesome for no kids, no vampires, no slash, no Mary Sues, and no locking of any kind. It's just our salute to the characters and their creators.
Metacarpal Tunnel Syndrome
Paula Douglas and Owlcroft
John trudged downstairs, his hair still damp from showering. He wasn't yet fully alive to the day, but he was alert enough to register the aroma of coffee as he reached their landing: Sherlock was already up. Whether he'd ever gone to bed remained to be seen. John continued down to the ground floor, where he retrieved the morning paper. Upstairs again, he tossed it, still rolled, onto the breakfast table and turned toward the kitchen.
A cup of coffee sat, no longer steaming, on a stack of reference books where Sherlock was working. Most people would sit at the table; Sherlock was crouching barefoot on the chair, peering into the microscope, intermittently muttering to himself, and scribbling calculations in his elegant, flowing hand. They owned two café chairs, either one of which would have obviated the need to crouch to see into the microscope, but they were a full four feet from the table: clearly Sherlock couldn't be bothered to reach for one. Despite having obviously been up for some time he hadn't dressed yet and was still wearing a t-shirt, pajama bottoms, and dressing gown. He gave no sign of having heard John moving about, but John knew he was perfectly aware of him and had probably already determined from the sound of the lint on John's right slipper that Manchester United had won last night's match. John smiled – and then stopped in his tracks at the sight of all the glassware on the cooker: glassware which included, among the items he could identify, an arsine generator, a separatory funnel, and – oh, Christ. "Are you distilling cyanide on the cooker?"
Sherlock didn't answer. He was very busy with the microscope.
"What? Oh: 'morning." This was produced in a bored, abstracted tone and with a vague wave of the hand which conveyed, once again, the sentiment that if John absolutely insisted on performing meaningless social conventions like greeting each other when it was perfectly obvious that they were in the room together Sherlock would go along with it, but under no circumstances would he approve.
John drew himself up. "Not 'morning.' I said, 'Are you distilling cyanide on the cooker?'"
"Hm?" Sherlock finally looked up. "What?"
"Oh. Yes. Obviously."
"For God's sake. It's a wonder we don't die in our sleep. Why?"
"That City man they found in Lower Shiplake last week."
"Didn't die from the gunshot."
"Not sure. Working on it. Couple of theories, though."
John sighed, looking at the array of glassware on the cooker. "I was going to make eggs."
"I used the last one."
"I needed it for –"
John held up his hand. "Don't tell me. I'll... I'll borrow a couple from Mrs. Hudson, if you get that rubbish off the cooker."
"Too bad. I am." John's eyebrows lowered and his stance altered to something a trifle more pugnacious, but Sherlock returned to the microscope, intent on ignoring him. John watched him for a moment, then said determinedly, "Alright, then: I'll move it."
Sherlock heard that just fine. "Don't touch it!" he cried.
John smiled, pleased at having won that particular contest of wills.
"Go get your eggs," Sherlock said, getting up. "I'll clear you a space."
"Poisoned, then shot," John mused, his thoughts returning to the Shiplake case. "So the murderer is OCD?"
Sherlock scowled at him as he began carefully relocating the cat's cradle of glass flasks and tubing.
John considered. "Maybe he wasn't deliberately poisoned, though. Did he smoke?"
Sherlock rolled his eyes and John answered his own question. "You thought of that straight off."
"Within the first three seconds, yes."
"Slowing down, then. What about –"
"He was a chartered accountant."
"So, no on pesticide exposure."
"No pesticides." Sherlock stopped dismantling his glass bits and looked over his shoulder. "I thought you were hungry."
John started. "Yes. Right. Going."
The eggs were duly borrowed with Mrs. Hudson's blessing. By the time John extricated himself from twenty minutes of amiable socializing with her and returned with the eggs – and cream, a packet of ham, and a borrowed can opener, their own being a casualty of Sherlock's wanting its toothed gear – Sherlock had showered, dressed, and abandoned his pet about the cyanide distillation apparatus. He'd found a recent copy of an organic chemistry journal and something there had caught his eye.
"How do you want your eggs?" John called into the sitting room. He moved the skillet with the ham to one side and reached for the can of beans.
"Not hungry," Sherlock said when the question had been put to him a third time.
"Scrambled, then," John said decisively.
John shoveled in half his ham and beans before he tired of watching Sherlock not eat.
"There's something wrong with these eggs," he said thoughtfully. "Something missing... or... I don't know. Sherlock, give them a try and see what you think. They taste kind of off to me."
Sherlock grunted dismissively but reached for his fork without taking his attention from the article, a discussion of Fehling's test in the original German. "What did you say?" he asked abruptly, suddenly turning his full attention on John
"I asked about the eggs. They taste funny. Do you think there's something I left out, or maybe it's the eggs themselves?"
"Yeah. Taste them for me and see, will you?"
Sherlock narrowed his eyes suspiciously, but he speared a forkful of eggs and sniffed it carefully, still eying John. "Smells fine."
"Yeah? What about the taste? Don't you think they taste a little off?" John kept his face perfectly expressionless.
"'Off'?" Sherlock sniffed the eggs again, then tasted, chewing thoughtfully. "They're fine."
"Huh. Okay. Thanks." John shrugged with apparent indifference and dropped the subject. Sherlock gave him another sideways look before returning to the magazine, but he retained the fork and mechanically ate his eggs – and his ham and his beans. By the time he reached the toast he was engaged enough in eating to ask for the jam. John didn't much care whether Sherlock savored his breakfast or not, so long as he ate it, and he mentally recorded the meal as another small triumph on the day.
Sherlock looked up from the article again. "What did Mrs. Hudson say about the storm?"
John didn't have to ask how he knew that they'd talked about the weather. The Atlantic storm bearing down on the British Islands had been front page news for the last three days, and would be a natural gossip topic for Mrs. Hudson. "There's an amber alert for London. Red for Wales and the west coast. We're supposed to get a lot of wind here starting this morning, but the worst rain and sleet's going to be in the Midlands, mostly. Should blow through by tomorrow night, but they're saying it's going to be a bad one because it's still building up."
"And now sport," Sherlock said, but he smiled.
John shrugged, but he smiled, too. "You asked."
"That I did."
The rest of breakfast passed mostly in companionable silence. By 9 a.m., when John divided the last of the coffee between them, Sherlock had abandoned the chemistry journal in favor of the newspaper's city section crime blotter. He skimmed it in something under half a minute, groaned disgustedly at the prosaic entries, and tossed it aside irritably, his equanimity, never well-anchored, having fled. He opened his mouth to register a bitter complaint about London's appalling paucity of interesting crimes when a gust of wind rattled the windows violently and fat, heavy raindrops spattered against them. They both looked up in surprise.
"Right on schedule," Sherlock noted, and heaved a dramatic sigh. "This is so tedious."
John looked at him in some surprise. There was no question of Sherlock caring about the chaos of the storm. The flooding, the ruined property, the snarled traffic, and the economic damage left him perfectly unmoved. He might notice a power outage if it affected his work, but... "Oh. Right. No clients."
"Nobody's going out in this. There isn't a chance of a client. They'll stop the trains, close the roads. People will just sit at home..."
"Stop committing crimes."
"Yes!" Sherlock cried. He clutched his hair with both hands, dropped his elbows onto the table, and gave a low, frustrated growl.
John resisted the urge to pat his shoulder or say something reassuring: it would not only not work on Sherlock but would actually worsen his temper. Instead he stood up, gathered his plate and silverware, and said, "Yes, well, even you can't change the weather, so do something helpful and bring your dishes over."
Another muffled growl. "Boring."
"Not as boring as washing them up. Or cooking the meal in the first place, for which you're welcome, by the way." John turned toward the kitchen because he didn't have to actually see the play of emotions across Sherlock's face to know the sequence: irritation at not having his complaint pandered to, haughty defiance at the request to do something so boring while he was busy being so bored, and finally sulky acquiescence. But the dishes got carried to the sink (after an interval exactly timed to demonstrate that Sherlock couldn't be bossed), and John knew that when the jam jar was returned, unsolicited, to its correct place in the refrigerator, 'thanks for breakfast' was implied.
As a small return for Sherlock's good manners, John asked after a nearly-completed case. Positive reinforcement, he thought to himself. "That businessman who was going to murder his partner – Peter Fielding – did Lestrade bring him in yet?
The first response was a nearly-inaudible mutter. John just waited him out and a somewhat louder answer was his just reward. "I gave them all the evidence they needed yesterday. I gave them footprints, the written threat, the receipt for the purchased weapon, and four toothpicks. I ask you, who could need more than that? But Lestrade kept talking about –" Sherlock waved a hand toward the ceiling, "– paperwork and a warrant. Supposedly, they should be bringing him in before noon today, though." He looked out the window at the approaching storm. "Serve them right for waiting if they drown doing it."
By 10 a.m., John was back at the sitting room table typing up his notes from last week's case of a quadruple homicide at a Croydon bicycle shop that had remained unsolved for 10 years. Until last Saturday. Until Sherlock. Sherlock had decided, from evidence including the fact that the shop's wall calendar was hung on a screw rather than a nail, that the murderer was the man who had "discovered" the bodies. John smiled as he typed, remembering the local constabulary's gob-smacked expressions when Sherlock threw that one at them. Sherlock eventually took them through his whole brilliant process, a process which John was not ashamed to admit still left him speechless with admiration. The local police, however, were unmoved. What sold them was the utterly mundane, ordinary fact, which it nevertheless required Sherlock to discover, that the man who found the victims – their friend – had stepped over the bodies to use the shop phone when he called police, instead of his own mobile. For the police, that emotionally jarring fact was far more compelling than any of the more objective minutiae from which Sherlock had actually derived his solution. Sherlock had sulked about it the whole way home.
A ringing crash from the kitchen wiped the smile from John's face and brought him halfway out of his chair. "Jesus!" he cried. Ostentatiously noisy rummaging and drawer slamming followed. He started counting to ten. He got to three. "What the hell are you doing?"
"What have you done with my still body?"
"I didn't do anything with your still body."
"It's not here."
"Well, I don't have it. I don't move your stuff."
"Hah!" Sherlock scoffed.
"You know, if you wouldn't leave things in the crisper and in among the spatulas – "
"Mrs. Hudson!" Sherlock bellowed.
"Sherlock!" John cried reprovingly.
"Did you find it?"
"No, I didn't find it. I'm not looking for it. I meant stop shouting."
"She won't hear me if I don't shout."
"You could bother to go down and ask her."
Sherlock stared at him. "Ask her if she's seen a still body."
John threw up his hands. "Well, obviously you can't trouble yourself to describe it to her. I see the problem now."
The standoff was resolved with the arrival on the landing of Mrs. Hudson herself. In spite of the rude summons from her very trying tenant, she was as unfailingly cheerful as ever. "Yoo-hoo!" she chirped, tapping on the open door. "I've brought you boys a gypsy tart." She bustled in past Sherlock, utterly oblivious to his attempt to look menacing, and began trying to find space in the refrigerator, tut-tutting at the mess inside. "Such awful weather," she continued. "There was nothing to do this morning, what with all the wind and rain, so I made it a Baking Day. I used to have Baking Days when my husband was alive... It was my mother's tradition, really..."
Sherlock was passionately devoted to Mrs. Hudson's gypsy tarts, but he was also aggravated by the disappearance of his still body and unwilling to let the subject drop easily. He clenched his teeth and said with all the dignity he could manage, "I can't find my still body."
"I'm sure you can't, dear." She was still rearranging the specimen trays in the fridge. "Where did you leave it last?"
Sherlock was fond of their landlady, John knew, but he also knew when that fondness was about to fall victim to irritation. He hurried into the kitchen. "Thanks for the tart, Mrs. Hudson," he said. "Sorry about the mess in the fridge. Tell you what: why don't we just leave it here on the counter. It's almost lunchtime, and afterward I'll find a spot for it in there – if Sherlock leaves any." He glanced at Sherlock, who knew very well what he was doing. He huffed and stared stonily into the sitting room. Translation: Fine. Do it your way. Just find my still body.
"We're looking for a piece of lab equipment," John said calmly. "It's about so long, clear glass, with three little glass tubes sticking out of it. Have you seen anything like that?"
"Oh, I did see that!" she cried. "I thought it was a – well, I mean, I know you don't... You boys aren't..." Her hands fluttered in confusion.
Sherlock turned and glared coolly at her. "You thought it was for drugs."
John scowled at him. "No, she didn't. That's ridiculous." He looked at Mrs. Hudson. "Did you?"
"Well, to be honest, dear, it did look a bit... you know. Suspicious."
Sherlock rolled his eyes. "Oh, for God's sake. Where is it now?"
"In my flat," Mrs. Hudson said, and at their expressions she added, "I didn't want you to get into trouble! You know, if the police came by again."
John put his arm around her shoulders and steered her for the door. "I'll come down and get it. We appreciate it, really, but it's not for drugs. Honestly. It's part of a thing for distilling chemicals..."
Sherlock accepted the still body wordlessly, with his usual lack of grace. John padded to the fireplace, kindled a fire, and settled into his armchair with a stack of study materials for a required continuing education class. He set his laptop on the end table, opened his spiral notebook, and sighed. "Sherlock."
"Mmm?" The detective didn't even glance in John's direction.
"You circled all the answers on this quiz."
Sherlock raised his head at this statement of the obvious. "Yes," he said, and returned to stirring a green fluid in a beaker.
"On my quiz. I'm supposed to do it. For credit."
"You said you hate doing them."
"I do, but –"
Sherlock held the beaker up to to the light and peered critically at it. "So I saved you the trouble."
John started to object again, then stopped. After a moment he said, "Did you check the answers?"
A wry expression crossed Sherlock's features. "Check them yourself, if you think I got something wrong. But I didn't."
John scanned the questions, checked the answers, looked up one that he was unsure about. All correct. "How did you know that about the cranial nerves?"
Another wry look.
"I can't submit this," John decided emphatically. "It's not my work."
"Do you want me to submit it? It's my work."
"What? No!" John thought some more, frowning.
Sherlock wasn't surprised when a few minutes later he heard a murmured, "Just this once, then."
Sherlock smiled to himself. "Just this once," he agreed.
An odor wafted through the flat. An intrusive, impossible-to-ignore smell. A revolting, overpowering, eye-watering stench.
John sniffed once, then again. "My God! Sherlock!"
"It's just beta-mercaptoethanol, John." Sherlock wrinkled his nose and admitted, "It is a bit strong." He moved to the window and opened it to the drenching rain. "They put it in CH4 so people can smell when there's a gas leak."
"Close the damn window, you idiot!" John cried. "I know what they use it for –" He hurried to the window and heaved it closed. "Turn on the kitchen fan and put a lid on that stuff. Now!" He gave Sherlock a shove toward the kitchen and began tossing sheets of newspaper onto the floor where water had already pooled.
Sherlock turned and dodged John to re-open the window. "I really think a little fresh air is worth the –"
John banged the window shut again with an inarticulate growl. "For God's sake, make it stop, Sherlock!"
"The amount of esters in the atmosphere is a constant at this point, John," Sherlock said didactically. "The smell isn't actually getting worse." He watched complacently as John knelt and began mopping with the newspaper.
"Turn the fan on!" John cried.
Sherlock made no move toward the kitchen. "Cast your papers upon the waters and they will return a thousand-fold," he said portentously in his booming baritone, making a sweeping gesture with his arm.
John, still mopping angrily, threw down his wad of newspaper and stood up. "You haven't even got that quote right, you great wanker!" he cried, and Sherlock deduced, from the set of his shoulders, the tension in his jaw, and his clenched fists, among other clues, that he had just reached John's limit for the morning. Mrs. Hudson would never know the knock-down row she was spared then when Sherlock's phone rang, but Sherlock did, and his relief was evident. He dove into his pocket for the phone and answered the call before it had played two notes.
"Yes, Lestrade," said the detective happily. The smile disappeared almost immediately and his expression darkened ominously. "What? Why?" A pause while he listened, and then he snapped, "If people are too stupid to get out of the rain, they deserve to drown!"
John at that particular moment didn't care what was aggravating Sherlock now: the great prat probably deserved it, whatever it was, but when Sherlock stabbed the button to end the call and told him what Lestrade had said, he understood his friend's outrage.
"They've pulled the surveillance off because of the storm!" Sherlock announced, gesturing angrily toward the window. "Every available officer is being put on traffic or rescue duty," he spat with contempt, "and Peter Fielding is left to just saunter away!" He raked a hand through his curls in frustrated anger as he paced the length of the room. "I gave them the case; it was a walk-over. Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!"
"I don't understand. He's committed arson, assault, and was planning a murder. How can they just turn a blind eye to that?"
Sherlock threw himself onto the sofa and sat there bouncing his knee in his agitation. "Lestrade said it was the higher-ups who gave the order. Told me Fielding was pinned down in his flat by the storm like everyone else so procedurally they had to give precedence to the emergency." His scowl was a masterpiece. "Procedure, for God's sake," he cried contemptuously. "Well, that's never stopped me." He sprang from the sofa and headed for the coat-rack.
"Where are you going?"
"Out. I'll find Fielding myself."
"Wait – Sherlock, just wait. You don't have to find him. He's at his flat, right? Where they were watching him? Why would he go out in this?" John gestured at the sheets of wind-driven rain slashing the windows.
"Because the police aren't out in it," Sherlock said. "Don't you see? He'll slip out now if he ever does."
"Oh, God," John sighed. "Well, you're not going alone." He shrugged into his coat as they pounded down the stairs. The wind hit them at once, whipping their hair, tearing at their coats and Sherlock's scarf, and making it difficult to breathe. The sheets of rain soaked them within seconds. Sherlock paced, oblivious to the weather, fuming with impatience for a cab. John knew from experience that if one didn't happen by within about fifteen seconds Sherlock would start for his destination on foot. He shook his head to dash the rain from his eyes and desperately hoped there were a few cabs still operating. Sherlock reached his limit and turned toward John, opened his mouth to announce that he couldn't wait any longer – but to John's vast relief a cab appeared out of the gloom at that moment and he hastily flagged it down.
Sherlock snapped the address to the cabbie before either of them was settled.
John waited until they'd reached the main road before asking, "Where would he go?"
"France is my guess," Sherlock muttered.
"France?" John was about to ask whether he was kidding, but Sherlock's black look of barely contained anger warned against that. He changed the question to, "You think he'd go now? How would he get there? They were talking about having to close the Chunnel."
"By boat. His girlfriend is waiting for him on the Thames right now."
These days John didn't have to ask how Sherlock knew things like that. His "homeless network" was an invaluable source of this type of street-level information. "In this weather?"
"He's desperate, John. Besides the two million quid he'll lose if he's caught, he's looking at two decades in prison if Lestrade ever catches up to him – although if he knew what incompetent idiots were after him..." He lapsed into silence, staring out past the silver beads streaming down the window, bouncing his knee, and twitching his thumb against his index finger as he always did when he thought his brain was going to explode, and John knew he wouldn't get another word out of him until they reached their destination.
The cab stopped before a high-rise Barking council flat that looked like it had been designed by a Soviet-era architecture school drop-out in a bad mood. The color of the tall concrete building brought wet newspaper to mind. Rusted, knee-high tube railing, designed to keep residents off the few grassy areas, had failed to do so, and the brown grass had been trampled into a flattened, muddy mess. Rimming the building's front plaza were a few dozen concrete pylons spaced a metre apart, meant to prevent people from parking next to the building. Judging by the number of broken pylons, that plan too had met with limited success.
One of the things Sherlock valued about John was that he thought ahead. Not as far ahead as Sherlock, but then no one did, so Sherlock didn't expect that. But he thought farther ahead than most people ever bothered to do. He had money ready for the driver before the car turned onto St. Margarets Road, and when Sherlock plunged from the car before it fairly stopped, John was right beside him.
Over the lobby entrance door someone had affixed a vinyl banner sign reading "Basing House," but as they dashed underneath it the upwind side tore free and it streamed away, flapping thunderously. Inside the building it was dry and warmer than it had been outside, but that was about all that could be said for it. The power flickered on and off even while they crossed the lobby, but whether that was due to the storm or whether that was the usual state of things they didn't know. They did know from experience that the lifts didn't work anyway, so they pounded up the stairs two at a time to the third floor.
Sherlock motioned John into silence as they approached Fielding's flat. He listened with his ear to the wall, standing to one side of the door to prevent his shadow falling on it. Nothing: no sound came from within. Quickly, quietly, and deftly he picked the lock, then glanced at John. John nodded. He had already drawn his pistol and stood with it pressed flat against his leg, his finger parallel to the slide and outside the trigger guard. He gestured Sherlock to stay back and stepped first into the flat. He needn't have worried: the place was abandoned. A single main room served as a combined sitting area, bedroom, and kitchen. To the left of the doorway was a filthy bathroom, the only other room in the place. Sherlock could see everything from the doorway, but he prowled into the kitchen out of sheer nervous tension, and John knew that while he seemed to be giving the place only the most cursory of glances, his remarkable brain was registering and recording everything.
For John's part there was little enough he could do, but he tested the back of the television with the flat of his hand: still warm.
On an occasional table next to the stained and discoloured sofa stood an ashtray brimming with cigarette butts. Sherlock eyed it, picked up one of the stubs, and sniffed it. John wasn't sure what it told his friend, but even he could see that they hadn't missed Fielding by much. "That's it, then," he said, dismayed. "He's gone. They've blown it."
"No," Sherlock said. "Well, yes. They've blown it. But we haven't. Come on." He led the way down the stairwell to the lobby, but instead of heading for the lobby door he turned the other way, toward the rear of the building, where a door on the left side of the lobby was labeled "Basement."
His hand was on the door when John stopped him. "Sherlock, wait. Let me go first. I've got the gun."
Sherlock gave an impatient jerk of his head and said, "We'll both go. Come on."
Sherlock's idea of what constituted a cautious entry into an unknown space was distinctly different from John's, and he reached the cellar first, in spite of John's efforts. The room in which they found themselves was less a proper basement than a catch-all of building maintenance supplies and was no more than ten metres or so on a side. In the corner opposite the stairs a custodian's cage was lit by a single bare bulb hanging from the ceiling and filled with mop buckets, cleaning supplies – and the custodian, face-down on the floor. His little rabbit-eared television was still on, tuned to the news channel where the storm was receiving wall-to-wall coverage. On the TV table next to a half-eaten Marmite sandwich, already attracting roaches, a game of solitaire was laid out.
John knelt beside the body. Sherlock didn't have to ask whether the man was dead and stood scanning the rest of the basement, because while he was quite sure that Fielding had already gone there was no harm in making sure that they didn't get attacked from behind.
"He's dead," John said, rising.
Sherlock didn't even grunt in reply. He'd spotted the drain cover in the middle of the cage floor even before they reached the bottom of the stairs. Now he dropped to his knees, took out his magnifying glass, and peered through it at the edge of the tool slot. "Scraped the metal. It's recent. John," he said, putting his hand out, "hand me the j-hook."
"There, on the wall: that hook." He gestured impatiently.
John gaped at him in disbelief. "Oh, come on. He went into the sewers? How do you know?"
"Not now, John. He's down there. Trust me. Please. The hook!"
John handed him the heavy steel hook with a sigh. As he accepted it Sherlock noted with satisfaction the fresh marks on the tool that corresponded to those on the iron cover. Then the power failed completely and they were left in total darkness.
"Oh, perfect," John sighed.
"Get the torch," Sherlock ordered as he maneuvered the tool into the manhole cover opening by feel.
"There's a torch?"
"On the table. Against the wall by the phone. The right side, before the tin of pencils but after the coffee cup." He listened to John feeling his way along the table. "Watch out for the –"
More delay as John groped for the light, and Sherlock, burning with impatience, wondered yet again how a man as clever as John could be so unobservant. Having found the torch, John in his turn watched Sherlock lever the heavy iron disk off the manhole and wondered once again at the surprising strength in that narrow frame.
Once he had the cover up, Sherlock practically threw it to one side, and John had to grab his arm to stop him plunging into the opening. "Sherlock, wait!"
Sherlock was deeply unwilling, but he stopped.
"Let me go first."
"He's not waiting at the bottom of the ladder, if that's what you're thinking."
"Here, then." John handed him the torch. "Wait for me."
"Yes, yes: you have the gun. I'll wait. Hurry up."
Sherlock backed down the ladder for a few feet, then lit the bottom of the shaft with the torch: not that far. He dropped the rest of the way.
John followed an instant later. "Shouldn't we kill the light?" he asked.
"He's not sticking around, I told you. If we're lucky he's not halfway to France by now."
"Yeah, why France?"
"Well, I say France. Belgium or the Netherlands are more likely, considering the winds and prevailing currents –"
"Wait. You think he's going to take his girlfriend's boat out of London, in this weather, down the Thames, to Holland?"
"I think he's going to try."
John shook his head. "Idiot."
In spite of all the rain, the water in the sewer wasn't as deep as John had imagined, although the place was certainly wetter than he'd expected. Water poured in from every overhead grate and even spurted from the bricks lining the passage. Fortunately, he reflected wryly, he and Sherlock were already soaked.
Down the centre of the tunnel ran a four-foot wide channel of swift-moving dark water, but they made their way along a catwalk that was nearly as wide as the channel itself. Another catwalk paralleled it on the far side of the water. Nor was the place as cramped and claustrophobic as he'd expected. The conduit through which they traveled had to be nearly five metres high, he estimated. Overhead was an arching structure of incredible brick- and tile-work which would probably be quite attractive in daylight, without a flood waiting to happen, and without a desperate criminal in the tunnel with them. Dark bricks and occasionally massive flagstones had been laid as flooring. Roughly every hundred feet the wall was ticked with metre and half-metre markings showing high water marks. John knew that the water sometimes rose even above street level, but the hash marks were a sobering reminder all the same.
Sherlock played the torch light into a couple of smaller side passages, and the walls flashed and glittered like diamond fire. "Efflorescence," he said before John could ask. "Minerals and salts. The water leaves it behind when it seeps through the brick."
"It's beautiful," John said, and indeed the tunnels were a remarkable and even oddly beautiful architectural achievement. "It doesn't smell that bad," he added.
"It will," Sherlock assured him. "When it floods the water in the runoff conduits and the sanitary sewers will mix together. The tunnels aren't all used for raw sewage, you know. Some, quite a few, in fact, were intended just to handle rain runoff. Like this one."
"Shouldn't the water be much higher?"
"It will be. You said the heaviest rain is forecast for the western areas of the city?"
"It will take some time for it to drain. Assuming it makes its way here at a good six to seven knots per hour I'd say we've got about eighty minutes before things get really interesting."
"'Interesting.' Great," John muttered. Suddenly he stopped. "Before we go any farther: you do know where we're going?"
Sherlock pointed to a shaft of muted daylight where the bars of a grating allowed light and water to pour down from the street and said, "This whole tunnel parallels the street. We're under King Edward's Road. See where the passage branches to the right? That comes from the A123 and Movers Lane."
"But we're going uphill, yeah? Upstream? You said we have to go down."
"Good, John. Eventually we will, but first we have to find the line where it runs under Gascoigne Road. That section of conduit runs straight to the Beckton plant."
"That's..." John thought for a moment. "... on the River Roding?"
"Excellent. Yes. The plant uses a sluice gate at the far side, to control the flow of treated water into the Thames."
"You are not telling me that we can go through the treatment facility. There must be a way out of the tunnels before that."
"Where Gascoigne passes under the A13. With this weather and in this part of the city, Fielding can make his way from there down the Roding to where it empties in to the Thames and no one will ever see him."
"Well, I'm impressed," John said, as they started forward again. "I'll tell you, you just saved your scarf with that explanation."
"My scarf?" Sherlock was back on the scent, only half-listening, playing the torchlight over the catwalk and walls – especially the walls.
"Yeah, you know. Unravel the yarn, tie one end to the ladder we came down."
"That would never work."
"No. Obviously. The scarf's too short. We'd have run out of thread five metres ago. Why don't you unravel that appalling jumper if you're so keen?"
John looked down at his sweater. "It's from Sarah."
"My point exactly. Think of it as a mercy-killing."
"It gives her a bit of a lift to see me wear it," said John with a peevish expression.
"You mean you're more likely to get a good –"
"Sherlock!" snapped his long-suffering companion. "Let's just get this done, as quickly as possible, all right?" He swung to his left suddenly. "What was that?"
"What?" Sherlock turned back and shone the torch where John seemed to be looking.
John stepped back to the side passage just behind them and peered hard into the shadows. "I saw something move, something . . . big, like a dog, maybe an Alsatian or something."
"Fielding?" whispered Sherlock.
"No, no. Not a person. Much lower to the ground, but bulky, like . . . a dog or a pig."
Sherlock shrugged. "There are all sorts of vermin down here. But dog-sized? No."
John continued to hesitate, irresolute. "I would have sworn I saw something. But what the hell could it have been?"
Sherlock plucked at his sleeve to draw him on. "Possibly a large cat. With all the rats and mice down here, surely there are some cats as well. Or a fox. Come on, John. We're wasting time."
Shaking his head, John followed his friend, not without a few backward glances.
A few metres farther along Sherlock stopped abruptly, but not because John was lagging. He reached down and plucked something from the ground before him. As he raised it to his nose to sniff it John recognized the object as a partly-burned cigarette.
"Fielding?" John asked.
"Fielding." Sherlock dropped the butt. "The moron. He had no way of knowing he wouldn't blow this entire section of city off the map."
"What, from the methane?" John looked behind them once again.
"You said they keep the runoff and sewage sections separated."
"They do. They are. But nothing is air-tight down here. When there's flooding there's no telling where everything goes. I told you: the stuff mingles."
They progressed about another 400 metres, by John's estimate, and were approaching the confluence of four other tunnels in addition to their own. Gascoigne must be the large passage to the left, John guessed, but Sherlock showed no intention of taking the turn. "Isn't that Gascoigne?" John asked.
"It is. He didn't go down there. I told you, he's an idiot. He's gotten lost. He kept on, straight ahead."
"How –?" John began.
"See the marks on the wall? Here? And here?"
John didn't, really, but he went through the routine of peering at the places where Sherlock pointed.
"He stopped here. Had another cigarette. Look: you can see where he ground it out with his toe, kicked it into the water. He's getting nervous. Starting to doubt his directions. Leaned against the wall to light up – here. You can see the scuff marks from his shoes."
"Those could be anybody's shoes."
"No. These marks are very recent. The water's already starting to erase the signs. Anyway, a maintenance worker would have known better than to smoke here. It's also incredibly illegal, if you care about that sort of thing. We're getting closer." He doused the torch. Just enough ambient light filtered down through the gratings to let them see without it, and there was no point in giving their target advance warning of their approach.
Steadily onward, then, until some fifty metres past the five-way intersection a subtle scratching noise from behind caught John's ear, audible even over the ever-present sound of running and dripping water, but patently not made by water. He turned and thought he saw that same quick, shadowy movement he'd seen before. He peered hard back along their track, but where the tunnels converged the light filtering down from the street-level gratings made it nearly impossible to make out any detail in the darker passage through which they'd come. He glanced at Sherlock and saw from his wary expression that he'd seen and heard it, too. Sherlock shook his head: whatever was in the tunnel behind them, it was not their quarry. John didn't waste time wondering whether Fielding could have doubled back: Sherlock, he knew, would have read that in the bricks. They started moving again, stepping carefully because they could afford to be more cautious now. Fielding was so far off the route that would have taken him to the river that there was no longer the least risk that he would reach it and his waiting boat before they overtook him.
The tunnel architecture changed irregularly as they passed through sections built and rebuilt during the city's long history, and now the tunnel and catwalk narrowed so that they were forced to walk single-file. The volume of water in the tunnels had perceptibly increased just since the big intersection, and so had the the volume of sound, so when they approached the next intersection – a four-way – they did so with great care.
In the end it didn't matter. Fielding plowed into Sherlock from a tunnel to their right and they both crashed into the channel. The torch went by the board, and since it was off when Sherlock dropped it, it simply disappeared. Fielding was a large man, as tall as Sherlock and more muscular, and he had fallen on top of the detective. Now he was pinning him to the bottom of the channel. Sherlock thrashed, not without purpose, but even he couldn't bring his fighting skills to bear hampered by a waterlogged wool coat and three feet of fast-moving water.
John had no time to threaten Fielding with the gun. He didn't even draw it, just dove in his turn onto Fielding's back. When his weight hit Fielding the man staggered but stayed up, but he also let go of Sherlock's throat. He straightened with John's arms still clamped around his neck, then suddenly bent forward and twisted, like a horse tossing its rider, and with the same result. John was flung right over Fielding's head and came down hard on the far catwalk, landing awkwardly on his left side. Pain shot through him from his shoulder to his hand and, as he struggled to regain his feet, he realized to his horror that he couldn't move his arm. He'd accomplished his purpose, however: Sherlock was no longer being drowned. The detective heaved his head and shoulders clear of the water, drawing in air with great gasps as he scrambled back, away from Fielding.
John didn't need his left hand to shoot. Even with the pervasive noise of the running water, the sound the hammer made when he cocked the gun was clearly audible. "Stop." His voice was a low growl made through clenched teeth. "Now." He tried to keep his voice steady, but the pain in his shoulder was agonizing. "I will kill you if you touch him again."
His voice might not have been completely firm, but the promise of deadly force in his eyes and posture was utterly convincing. Fielding stopped.
Sherlock staggered to his feet, still panting, shedding water in every direction, but recovering with his usual speed. Somehow, he'd managed to find the torch and now flicked it back on and focussed it on Fielding. "Turn around," he ordered. It was just as well that he'd refused to lend John his scarf earlier. He now put it to a more practical but still unorthodox use and bound Fielding's hands with it.
"We need to get out of here quickly," he grunted, pulling the final knot as tight as he could. "We're running out of time. Ten minutes by my estimate." Then he addressed Fielding. "Face me," he snapped, and Fielding turned toward him again. He put one hand in the centre of Fielding's chest and pushed while sweeping the man's near leg with his foot. Fielding abruptly sat down on the catwalk. "Don't move." Then he turned to John.
"Are you alright?"
"Yeah. No. Shit."
"Broken? Dislocated? Let me see."
John shook his head and took a step back. "No. No, don't – don't touch it. Just... Christ, it hurts, and I can't... There isn't full range of motion or anything like. I'm sorry, Sherlock, I don't know how much use I'm going to be now."
"Never apologize, John. It's a sign of weakness." That had the intended result of making John smile in spite of his pain. "Hang onto the gun. I know you can still shoot." He turned and fixed Fielding with an icy glare. "He will kill you, you know. Now get up."
Fielding glowered sullenly at him, his nose streaming blood from the fight, but he didn't move.
John's expression hardened and he raised the gun. Fielding scrambled to his feet. He and Sherlock were still standing in the channel, and Sherlock pointed to the other catwalk, where John stood. "Up there. Get going."
They started back with Fielding between them. John stayed well back from the murderer, partly to give himself room to avoid shooting Sherlock if anything happened, and partly because he wanted plenty of time to avoid shooting at all. He suspected that a ricochet was a bigger risk than a methane explosion, but he preferred to avoid them both.
They had gone as far as the four-way intersection when Sherlock suddenly stopped, his head held high, sniffing the air. "Smell that?"
As the water had risen the stench of sewage had increased, and at first John couldn't detect anything beyond it, but as they paused he became aware of an odd, animal reek and . . . carrion. "A body?" he wondered. "Something that the rats have been at?"
Sherlock glanced around their immediate area quickly, but there was nothing to be seen and he was oppressed by the knowledge that the water would be rising. "Whatever it is will be washed away by the flood. Six minutes now, John." He motioned them to follow as he strode on as quickly as he dared in the increasing gloom.
They'd taken only a few more strides when John heard a low-pitched squeal from just behind him. There was no time to turn to identify the source before something compact and powerful thrust past his knees. Fielding screamed. Sherlock shouted "John!" and then it was chaos. Over Fielding's piercing screams and Sherlock's shouts, John could hear . . . something . . .an inhuman snarling, a crunching noise, a dry scrabbling like claws on the brick, and then Sherlock's grunts of effort as he struck furiously with the torch at whatever was up there in the dark.
"Sherlock!" he yelled.
"Stay back, John!" he heard in reply.
Then Fielding's screams gave way to panicked sobbing and whatever the noisome, half-seen creature was, it abandoned Fielding as abruptly as it had attacked him and disappeared into the blackness, downstream.
Fielding's moans and pleas for help echoed eerily off the brick walls of the tunnel and John hurried forward to examine his wounds. The worst was at the right knee, where the flesh had been torn nearly to the bone and blood was flowing freely, but the man was also in a state of near-paralytic terror.
"What the hell was that?" John asked as he worked to stem the flow.
"I don't know. It was attracted by the blood, though. That's why it went for him instead of one of us."
"Well, you drove it off."
"No. It just stopped," Sherlock said slowly, as his brain took its time giving him the answer. "It looked up the tunnel... then ran. I had nothing... to do with it. " He was gazing upstream, his senses straining to make out what had frightened an animal that came straight from a nightmare, and while he could neither hear nor see anything, reason suddenly told him why the creature had fled. "John. We don't have time for this."
John had pried the scarf from Fielding's hands and was trying to fashion a tourniquet of some sort, but failing. His left arm had improved somewhat, but while he had control of it now there was almost no strength in it. He couldn't untie the knots. "If you'd give me a hand, Sherlock, this would go quicker."
Sherlock grabbed his good arm and yanked him roughly to his feet. "I said we don't have time for this. Come on!"
"Sherlock," John cried indignantly, "he's injured. He can't walk. We can't leave him."
Sherlock was frantic now to get out of the tunnel, but he realized that John had stopped thinking of Fielding as a prisoner and now saw him as a patient: one of his holy patients. "Dammit, John. The water's coming now. If you stay here, you'll die."
"So will he!"
"I don't care about him," Sherlock snarled. "Listen!" And now John too could hear it: a distant hiss, like the sound of the sea in a shell – but here in this subterranean maze the sound filled him with terror.
In spite of his panic and pain Fielding had realized his probable fate if they left him behind and began to gabble and snatch at them, desperately hoping they would carry him along with them.
"No," said John in horror. "I can't just –" But Sherlock had a vise grip on his arm and pulled him inexorably down the catwalk, ignoring his protests and Fielding's shrieks for help. "Save your breath for running," he panted, and finally his urgency transferred itself to John. They ran.
Sherlock steered for the nearest ladder leading to a surface street, some fifty metres ahead of them. Behind them the sound of oncoming water had increased to a muffled thunder even as Fielding's screams grew fainter and higher-pitched. The bricks of the catwalk were awash now, making the risk of falling into the channel and being swept away much greater, but by keeping close to the wall side they made it to the ladder.
Sherlock tossed away the torch, leapt for the rungs without breaking stride, and swarmed up. With only partial use of his left arm John progressed more awkwardly, but it went far better than he'd hoped and he was right behind his friend. Sherlock strained furiously against the manhole cover and John was frantic to help, but even if he'd been at full strength there was no room for the two of them side by side. He glanced upstream, and although he couldn't see the water he could hear it. "Sherlock, hurry," he said unnecessarily.
Sherlock couldn't hear him for the thunder of blood in his ears and his own hoarse groans as he fought desperately against the cover. With a frustrated cry he gave another frantic shove – and felt the plate shift. He adjusted his stance slightly, strained every muscle, and suddenly daylight and icy rain poured down on them. He shoved the massive plate aside and dragged himself out of the shaft, breathing hard.
John's head and shoulders appeared; he reached out with his right hand. Sherlock was turning to help when he saw John jerked back as though his feet had been grabbed and pulled. His hand splayed on the asphalt like a claw. Sherlock dove for him, caught his hand, and arrested his downward motion, but the torrent pulled at John like a living thing. It had driven his feet off the ladder and was flowing far too fast and at far too great a volume for him to regain it.
John wasn't as heavy as the manhole cover, but he was being dragged down irresistibly by the raging water. Sherlock's right hand gripped John's and his left encircled John's wrist, but he was flat on the ground and couldn't get the leverage to pull him clear. For the moment, Sherlock's frantic strength and the inexorable pull of the water were in stasis, but it couldn't last. The merest slip and John would be gone.
John wanted to scream at Sherlock to pull harder, for Christ's sake, pull harder, but he was afraid to divert even a fraction of energy from his grip on Sherlock's hand. He squeezed his eyes closed and devoted every ounce of strength he had left to holding on.
"Don't." Sherlock's voice was strained and unnatural. John opened his eyes and looked straight into Sherlock's, and he saw his own terror mirrored there. "Don't," Sherlock said again. "Don't. Don't." He didn't seem to know he was saying it, but he kept repeating it like an incantation. His teeth were bared in a feral snarl of determination and absolute refusal to concede when he strained back with all his wiry strength – and John felt himself hitch forward. In terms of breathing room it wasn't much, but it was enough to allow Sherlock to swing his long legs past John and brace one foot against the far rim of the manhole.
That made the difference: he pulled John up far enough so John could get his right foot onto a rung above the racing water. John didn't bother trying to get his other foot on the ladder, but pushed off with all his remaining strength. Sherlock never stopped pulling, and the combined force of their efforts dropped them abruptly into an ungainly, sodden tangle on the asphalt: exhausted, blowing like spent horses, and never so pleased to be alive.
If he'd been asked, John Watson would have said that the camaraderie he'd experienced in the army couldn't be found in civilian life, and still less that it could be found in the person of an icily aloof, mercurial, arrogant genius. When he'd been invalided home he had mourned the loss of companionship as he'd known it in the service. He'd gotten a taste of life as something goal-driven, precarious, and worth fighting for, and he had reveled in it. He'd been close with his fellow soldiers, as close as men fighting for their lives could well be, but he was not naturally gregarious. Civilian life left him adrift, bereft, without purpose, and with no evident means of acquiring one. And before he met Sherlock Holmes, he'd believed that purpose of that sort might never be part of his life again. It was in moments like this, when he and Sherlock together had fought against the odds and won, that John felt himself most at peace.
They lay there for a while, relishing the sensation of sleet stinging their upturned faces because it meant that they were alive. It was John who finally spoke. "Question."
The water in the manhole was lapping above the rim before they finally staggered to their feet. Until Sherlock took his right hand again to help him up, John hadn't realized that the ache in it originated from at least one and possibly more metacarpals crushed by Sherlock's unrelenting grip, but as his adrenaline ebbed the pain increased accordingly. Their susceptibility to the elements likewise increased, and John's overriding concern was to reach a hospital before they both got hypothermic.
The streets were almost completely deserted, the shops were closed, and even if their mobiles hadn't been thoroughly waterlogged, the phone networks were down. They staggered for almost twenty minutes through the wind and sleet before they spotted a police car to flag down. The driver dropped them under the ambulance canopy of Newham General and radioed their message to Lestrade.
Even with the weather factored in the hospital was busy, but a sympathetic nurse found warm, dry blankets for them to wear while they waited to be seen. John's hand was duly bandaged, Sherlock signed the discharge paperwork for him, and they settled in the public space to wait for the inspector.
John's chin had dropped to his chest and the noise of the hospital had faded to a soothing background buzz in his ears when he felt Sherlock sit down beside him again.
Sherlock held out a paper cup of bad hospital coffee with a hopeful expression.
"Thanks," John said, accepting it.
"Mm." Sherlock sipped from his own cup. "I'm sorry I broke your hand when I saved your life," he said solemnly, not looking at John.
John smiled. "Never apologize, Sherlock. It's a sign of weakness."
The first question out of Lestrade's mouth when he saw them was, "How'd you break your hand?"
John stroked his bandages and said gravely, "We were holding hands in the rain." Sherlock snorted and looked away, and then they both dissolved into laughter.
"Yeah, that's hilarious," said Lestrade, who had already had a long, trying day and who now had no choice but to wait until they finished. "Are you two up to telling me what happened now? The driver who dropped you off said you were yammering about Peter Fielding and . . . a rat?" Lestrade cocked his head and waited for an explanation.
Sherlock composed his features and gave him a quizzical look. "A rat? Surely not. John, did you say anything about a rat?"
"No-oo," John considered, deep in concentration. "Oh, maybe he heard us talking about my friend, Jack. He's from Ballarat in Australia, Greg." He exchanged quick sly glances with Sherlock as Lestrade nodded in acceptance of that explanation. They both knew that if any part of Fielding's body was later found with lacerations that looked like bite marks, Sherlock was fully prepared to attest that they occurred post mortem because the man was fine when the flood took him.
Lestrade seemed satisfied with their report of events at last, and stood considering them for a moment: exhausted, wet, disheveled, injured, and reeking of sewage, they made a pathetic spectacle. He felt sorry enough for them to make a generous offer of a lift back to Baker Street. The hospital had discharged John with instructions (which he didn't need) and pain pills (which he did), so they ducked out quickly back into the storm, where the gloom had segued into impenetrable night. They piled tamely into the back seat of Lestrade's car. He turned the heater up on high, put the flashers on, and never once complained about the smell of raw sewage that filled his car.
The rain and sleet hammering the windscreen made further conversation impractical, which seemed to suit all three men well enough. For John's part he was utterly spent, and after the first ten minutes in the warm car even the indefatigable Sherlock looked like he was having to fight to keep his eyes open.
So they drove in silence. John tested his shoulder with a tentative shrug, then looked down at his heavily bandaged right hand. God knew he'd had worse injuries, although none for a cause he valued so highly. No. All things considered, what happened today had been worth an injury. He was not in doubt about his friendship with Sherlock. Sherlock, for reasons known only to himself, had chosen John to trust, rely upon, and value. John knew that and guessed a lot more, but what he'd neither known nor guessed until today was the depth of that feeling. The great mind was evident to everyone who met Sherlock, but John alone knew of the great heart. Sherlock was as unlike the men John had served with as it was possible for a man to be. When it came to expressing an emotion other than frustration or glee about a case he was never effusive, never demonstrative. He would never go to a pub and raise a pint with John. He would never throw his arm around John's shoulder, never clap him on the back or punch him in the arm. He was more unorthodox than that and far more subtle, but if one observed carefully, if one made a study of him as John had, and above all if one gave him a good reason, he would, sometimes, as he had today, reveal himself. John stared at his hand and smiled. Worth it. Definitely. Sherlock Holmes had a heart, and John had the metacarpal fragments to prove it.
"What?" Sherlock broke the silence. He was peering intently, almost anxiously, into John's face, trying and utterly failing to deduce anything from the fact that John was staring at his broken hand and smiling. Sherlock could make nothing of that, and it worried him.
John knew that there was no risk that he would. Not yet. Someday, maybe, and he'd never thought he'd believe that. But not today. He smiled again. "Nothing," he said.
Sherlock regarded him suspiciously for a moment longer, then brightened and said, "In that case, can I have your Tramadol?"