THE BLUE CARBOY
Owlcroft & Paula Douglas
Arthur Hampton, a tall, burly man in his early 40's, strong and fit-looking with greying hair and a habitually cheerful expression, jogged up the steps of his club in Grosvenor Square. "Afternoon," he called to the concierge at the reception desk. "I had a text saying there's some mail for me."
"Major Hampton," the concierge said, looking pleased. "Welcome, sir. Yes, sir. We've been holding a package for you, and here's your post." The concierge, whose name was Jameson, reached into a numbered pigeonhole mail slot behind the reception desk and passed a large manila envelope to Hampton.
"Thanks, Jimmy," said Hampton, opening the envelope and glancing at the mail inside. Jameson disappeared into the offices behind the reception desk and returned struggling with a heavy wooden case. As he wrestled it to the desk one of the plastic straps that secured the lid parted with a twang.
Hampton looked up from his mail. "Oh, sorry, let me give you a hand with that," he said. He hefted the case easily. "The latest Carboy Club shipment," he explained. "Just in time for the holidays. Wonder what they've sent this time. It's pot luck, you know," he added.
"Yes, sir," said Jameson. "We have several other members who subscribe. Will you be staying for dinner tonight?"
"Love to, Jimmy, but there's no time," Hampton said. "I want to fit in a visit to an old friend of mine before I head home, and we'll have some catching up to do." He tucked the case under his arm, trotted back outside and hailed a cab as he stepped onto the pavement. "Baker Street," he said, climbing in. "221 Baker Street."
John answered the door and his face broke into a delighted grin. "Hamp!" he cried.
"Watson the Lionhearted," Hampton said boisterously, putting out his hand. In the other he held a large, cobalt-colored bottle of alcohol.
John took his hand in both of his and they shook warmly. "Come in, come in," he said, ushering his old friend inside and clapping him on the back. "Come on up. Let me take your coat. What brings you to London? Are Lizzie and Amy with you? How are they?"
Hampton laughed. "I'm batching it today," he said. "Had to get some pension business straightened out. You know how it is. Always some reason why they can't pay you, and this time they wanted some forms signed in person."
John gestured to the leather Le Corbusier seat. "Sit down, sit down. Can I get you anything? Got the shopping done just yesterday, so there's actually something in. Tea? Coffee?"
"I'm all sorted," Hampton said. "Thanks. Actually, I came by to bring you this–" he handed John the bottle of brandy "–as a way to say 'thank you.'"
John cocked his head. "For what?"
"'For what?'" Hampton repeated. "For Lizzie's health, of course."
John brushed that aside with a modest gesture.
"No, really," Hampton said. "If you hadn't recommended Doctor Houghton for a second opinion I don't know where we'd be. She'd have gone ahead with the surgery and all...We're so grateful for your advice. She made me promise to tell you–again."
"Hamp, really," John said. "I just made a phone call. It was nothing. Any doctor would have done the same."
"Well, any decent doctor." John accepted the bottle and turned it in his hands. The body cylinder of the heavy bottle of cobalt-coloured, opaque glass was adorned just below the shoulder by a gold medallion engraved with the image of a flying goose. "I don't think I've heard of this brand before. Blue Goose? Where'd you find it?"
"It's a subscription," Hampton said. "They send four bottles of something every quarter. Brandy, scotch, cognac: you know. Different things each time, but from the same company. It's Russian, if I remember correctly. Eastern European, at any rate. They like their geese, the Russkies. Blue Goose, Black Goose, Red Goose–depending on what kind of liquor it is."
"So," John said, having stowed the bottle in the kitchen and settled in his arm chair. "How are you both?"
"Great," Hampton said. "Doing great, thanks to you."
"Listen," Hampton said, lowering his voice. "What about you? How are you holding up?"
"Yeah, good. I'm good," John said, and thought he probably sounded more or less like he meant it. "First holiday since...Well. But there's always something going on around here, you know. To keep me busy."
Downstairs the door slammed. "John!"
"And here he is now," John said. "My flatmate."
"Oh, right!" Hampton said. "The detective? The one on your blog? I've been looking forward to–"
Sherlock sprang up the stairs two at a time and bounded into the room carrying a tattooed human arm. He had seen the strange coat hanging in the entry and smelt the faint whiff of aftershave, so he knew perfectly well that John had a visitor–Mrs. Hudson didn't have callers who wore aftershave–but John's visitors were invariably dull while he himself had a very exciting piece of news.
"John!" he said again as he hit the landing. "Molly's got a corpse with three gunshot wounds and a head injury that–"
"Sherlock," John cut him off with a look. "Sherlock, this is an old mate of mine from the army. Major Arthur Hampton. Hamp, this is my friend Sherlock Holmes."
Hampton had stood up to greet Sherlock in all good faith, but now he was staring at the severed arm and rapidly losing enthusiasm. He had already put out his hand to shake Sherlock's, however, and he was a little puzzled how to avoid the contact without seeming rude. "Call me Hamp," he said.
Sherlock flicked his gaze over Hampton: married, came down from Aylesbury, Bucks on the 8:13 a.m. train, non-smoker, British Army retired, one child no more than three years old, probably a girl, made three–no, four stops in London before Baker Street: Boring. "I have to refrigerate my arm."
John didn't even bat an eye. "Put it in plastic first," he called, as Sherlock headed for the kitchen. He looked at Hampton and said apologetically, "Sorry. He's easily distracted."
"Yeah, listen," Hampton said, "I'd better be off. I left the cab waiting with the shopping and I've got one more thing to pick up for Lizzie. Besides, I hate to wait until the last train. There's one out in an hour, and that will just give me time to pick up her gift."
"Sure?" John said. "You can stay for dinner if you like. We'd love to have you."
"Oh, God, here we go," Sherlock muttered from the kitchen.
Hampton glanced over, saw him place the plastic-wrapped arm in the refrigerator. "No, no," he said. "Lizzie will have supper waiting when I get there, and if I spoil my appetite she'll take my head off."
"Well, I'll see you out then," John said. "Give Lizzie my love," he said at the door. "Tell her 'Merry Christmas' for me, and that she's a saint for putting up with a prat like you all these years."
Hampton laughed and clapped him on the back. "You take care of yourself, Lionheart."
John stood at the sink filling a large pot with water when Sherlock emerged from his bedroom and paused in the kitchen doorway. Dressing gown over shirt and trousers, John saw, glancing at him, and barefoot.
"Not going back to the morgue tonight, then?"
"He'll keep," Sherlock said.
John indicated the refrigerator with a nod. "And the arm?"
"The arm? Oh–an experiment. I want to examine the difference between a tattoo applied pre- and post-mortem at the cellular level."
He peered into the filling pot, then visually swept John up and down. It was done in the time it took to blink, and most people would never notice it, but John did. Sherlock had been giving him these extra once-overs for ten months, ever since John moved back to Baker Street. Sherlock could be a rude, indifferent, socially tone-deaf bastard, but he was as sensitive as a cat with those he liked, and John was grateful that Sherlock, at least, didn't burden him with sympathetic looks and expressions of concern. It was easy to pretend that he didn't notice his friend's little assessments, and in almost no other way did Sherlock indicate that he was aware of John's loss.
"Pasta okay?" John asked. The question was strictly pro forma; Sherlock was largely indifferent to mealtimes and if he'd thought there were a way to exist solely on air John reckoned that he'd probably try it.
"Hm? Fine," Sherlock supposed. An arch expression crossed his face then. "'Lionheart'?" he said.
"Never mind," John replied.
Sherlock didn't actually own any tattoo equipment, just the arm, so for the moment he had nothing on which to experiment. He stood at the sitting room window, tuning his violin. John hung the dishtowel over the back of a chair to dry. "I'm going to try this brandy Hamp brought," he said. "Would you like a glass?"
"Not just now."
John shrugged, took down just the one glass, and poured. Nothing happened. He looked at the bottle and made a slight swirling motion with it. There was definitely plenty of brandy in there, but the opaque glass prevented him seeing why it wouldn't pour. He tried again. This time the bottle produced a slight trickle, then nothing. John frowned at it. "What the hell?" He held the bottle up to the light and tilted it, trying to see inside. "There's something in there," he said.
"Brandy, I expect," Sherlock replied.
"No, actually. Well, yeah, but I mean there's something in the bottle, blocking it."
Sherlock perked up a bit. "Let me see."
John demonstrated, tipping the bottle into the glass but with the same result. A little trickle of brandy that stopped almost immediately.
Sherlock took the bottle from him. He peered into the mouth, holding the bottle to the light. He stood it on the table and studied it from every angle. Picked it up again, sniffed the cap. Licked the opening. Turned it about and looked at the underside. Upended it over the sink. Another irregular trickle. He wrapped the bottle in a towel. "Stand back," he said, and turning his face away he cracked the bottle hard against the side of the sink.
"Sherlock–" John started to object but stopped when he saw that something in addition to shattered glass had fallen into the sink: a wad of plastic blister wrap with something white enclosed inside.
Sherlock looked at it lying there in the sink for a moment before finally picking it up. He carried it to the table and used a scalpel to delicately slice away the clear packing tape securing the blister wrap. He peeled the wrap away to reveal a small zip-sealed, clear plastic bag containing something wrapped in jeweler's cotton.
"What the hell...?" John muttered. "What is that?"
Sherlock didn't answer, but he was vibrant with interest now. He carefully sliced open the little bag, then the tape securing the cotton, and used the scalpel to push down the edges of the cotton and reveal a clear blue, oval-cut gemstone about the size of a hen's egg. He sat back in his chair, steepled his hands, and considered it silently.
"Is that a diamond?" John asked.
"It's the Great Khan."
"The Great Khan. The most valuable blue topaz in the world."
"Oh, come on. You – you're serious," John said, not fully believing him.
"John: this is the Great Khan. It disappeared from the the New Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg in 1909 and hasn't been seen since."
"What, and it just turns up today in a bottle of brandy? In our flat? That's ridiculous." John looked at Sherlock, who was clearly not having him on, and then back at the stone. It was far too big to have fit into the mouth of the bottle, he realized. "How the hell did it get in there?"
Sherlock went to the sink and picked up a large piece of glass–the piece with the medallion on it. He held it under the magnifying light, turned it over. "Here," he said, pointing. "Where the medallion is. Someone's cut a hole in the bottle, dropped the stone in, and then sealed the hole with the medallion."
"To smuggle it into England, at a guess."
"Oh, hold on," John objected. "Hamp's no smuggler."
"Didn't say he was. He doesn't have to be. Probably didn't know it was there, unless you and he are much better friends than you've said." They considered the stone as it glittered on the cotton.
"What's it worth?
Sherlock wasn't completely sure about that. "Somewhere in the neighborhood of two million pounds," he said. "Give or take."
"For a topaz? Come on, Sherlock. That's...that's a semi-precious stone. It's not like it's a diamond. Why would it be worth so much money?"
"Age and provenance," Sherlock said. "It was mined during the reign of Ghengis Khan. The story is that he owned it for a time, until it was stolen from him. That alone makes it valuable. Then there's the color."
"But you see blue topaz in jewelry shops all the time."
"That's almost never real blue topaz," Sherlock said. "It's clear topaz, or grey, or yellow, that's been irradiated to change the stone's color centers."
"Yes. Topaz gets its colour differently from other stones. Most gemstones get their colour from elements and impurities in their chemical composition: chromium in rubies. Iron and titanium in emeralds and sapphires. Topaz gets its colour from imperfections in the lattice structure of the crystal itself. When it's exposed to fast neutrons during irradiation its colour centers are changed and the stone turns blue." He held the gem up to the light. "That's not the same colour that you see in most jewelry shop topaz, is it?"
"No...No, those are more of a sky blue. This is kind of...it's got a sort of grey cast to it."
"London Blue," Sherlock said. "It's the most popular colour of topaz, but it's also almost impossible to find in nature. The Great Khan is the largest naturally-occurring London Blue topaz ever found."
"And it's sitting on our kitchen table."
"Well, I guess we'd better turn it in, then."
Sherlock didn't reply. He frowned at the rock, thinking.
"But who would we give it to?" John wondered. "The police? A museum?" Sherlock didn't answer. He was still focused on the rock. "Sherlock?"
"Where did your friend say that bottle came from?"
"Ah...he has a subscription to a kind of liquor club."
"Yeah. You pay a subscription fee, and then every three months they send you a crate with...three or four bottles, I think he said...of different kinds of high-end alcohol. You know: cognac, brandy, whisky, stuff like that."
"But where did it come from?"
"Well, he has them delivered to his club, so he must have picked it up today when he was in town."
"No," Sherlock said impatiently. "What's the name of the company that sends the liquor?"
It was John's turn to frown. "I don't know. The bottle said 'Blue Goose' or something, but I think that's the brand. I don't think it's the same as the company that runs the subscription club. You don't think Hamp is smuggling gems into the country? Sherlock: There's no way."
"I think he didn't know that the stone was in the bottle he gave you. That doesn't necessarily mean that he's not involved in getting the bottles into England."
"But I doubt it."
Sherlock was still frowning at the stone. "The Great Khan," he mused. "After all these years. You know, it's famous for being blue, but it really should be infamous for being red."
"What does that mean?"
"It means murder only ever has two motives, John: money and power. A stone like this can give a man both. People have been killing each other over this little scrap of aluminium and fluorine for eight hundred years, and they're not going to stop now." He looked up at John.
"You think Hamp is in danger?"
"I think that whoever holds that stone will always be in danger."
"I'll call him," John said at once, and reached into his pocket for his phone.
"John, wait. Don't tell him why you're calling. Just tell him that you need to meet with him and that it's important. Say nothing about the stone."
John knew better than to distrust Sherlock's advice about things like that. Hampton's phone rang twice, then sent him to voice mail. "Hamp? It's John. Listen, call me when you get this message, will you? It's important. I'll have the phone on late. Just call me, please." He ended the call and looked at Sherlock.
"Do you know his club?" Sherlock asked.
"Yeah. Yeah, it's The Officers' Club."
"Grosvenor Square," Sherlock said at once. "Let's go."
"You're not leaving that out on the table," John said, indicating the gem.
"No," Sherlock said. He took the tattooed arm from the fridge, unwrapped it, and placed the stone into the crook of the elbow. He replaced the wrapping and put the arm next to the eggs.
"Well, you couldn't give me two million quid to touch it now," John said.
The Officers' Club was busy that time of night with members dining and socializing. In spite of the soaring, ornately-carved walnut ceiling and the grand size of the main room, the rich woods and warm tones of the decor imparted a comfortable, intimate feeling. Swags of pine boughs punctuated with red ribbons had been looped from the banisters and chair railings. A fifteen-foot Christmas tree glittered at one end of the main gathering room, where its colorful glass ornaments caught and reflected the light from the cheerfully flickering fire in a massive granite hearth. Club members milled in and through the great hall, generating a continual buzz of conversation that was punctuated frequently by the sound of laughter.
To the right of the main entry door stood a huge, old-fashioned reception desk. Behind the desk and taking up nearly the entire width of the wall were scores of pigeonholes, each with a small brass tag engraved with a number. On a counter under the pigeonholes the usual office supplies were scattered: stapler, pens, a calculator, scissors, tape. The space below the counter was taken up with cabinetry that concealed more supplies and several file drawers.
"Good evening, gentlemen," the concierge on duty said as John and Sherlock approached the desk. "How may I help you tonight?"
Sherlock smiled. "I'd like to leave a message for Arthur Hampton," he said.
"Major Hampton," the concierge said. "Of course."
Sherlock produced a scrap of paper from his pocket, scribbled a few lines on it, folded it in half, and handed it to the concierge.
The concierge dropped the message, still folded, into an envelope, then tapped briefly on his computer. He hit the return key and a printer under the counter produced a small adhesive label with a number on it: 5213E, Sherlock noted. The concierge affixed the label to the envelope and placed the envelope in the pigeonhole with the matching 5213E number.
Sherlock smiled at him again. "That's a rather complicated way to leave a message, isn't it?" he said pleasantly. Mr. Conversational. Mr. Friendly. "Surely you could just put it in the slot? Wouldn't that be easier?"
"Well, sir," said the concierge, "it's the best way we've found to maintain our members' privacy."
Sherlock looked puzzled and as stupid as he was capable of. "I don't understand. If you enter the message into the computer, surely it's not private any more?"
"Oh, no, sir, we don't enter the message contents into the ledger, just the fact that a message came in. We record the incoming message in our ledger with the date and time. Then we print out a little sticker with the member ID, put the message or post in an envelope, and put the sticker on the envelope. Then we match the sticker number to the box number. That way no one can walk by and see mail stacked up and associate it with a name, and there's always a record of our having received the messages and mail. Everyone's protected."
"Ingenious," Sherlock said. "I suppose you don't bother doing the same with packages, then, since you could hardly put one in a mail slot?"
"Oh, no, sir. Package deliveries are handled the same way."
"With stickers. Yes, I see. Well," he said, appearing to lose all interest in the topic and turning to John, "you said you wanted to fill out a membership application, right?"
"Oh, right. Yes," John said. "Hamp was telling me just today about all the advantages of joining; said he'd be glad to sponsor me getting in but that I needed to come by to apply. Is there a form or something?"
"Yes, sir," said the concierge. "Let me just find one for you."
As he turned away from the counter Sherlock reached over and adjusted the monitor's angle slightly. The most likely explanation for Hampton getting the wrong crate, he knew, was that the intended recipient used a visually similar box number or that its physical location was near Hampton's. It was a simple matter for him to scan the ledger and see that a Philip Martin used account number 5213F.
John glanced at him as he accepted the application form, but Sherlock gave a minute shake of his head and John addressed the concierge again. "Listen, Hamp was telling me about your billiards room. Swears up and down that it's better than the one at Black's. I bet him twenty pounds that I wouldn't like it as well. Do you think I could take a look at it?"
"Of course, sir," the concierge said. "All visitors have to be escorted, I'm afraid, unless they're with a member," he added apologetically, "but I can take you there. It's just down the hall."
"Great. Thanks," John said. "Sherlock? You going to be okay here?"
"Hm? Oh, yes, I'll just wait," Sherlock said, sounding bored. The instant the concierge's back was turned he reached over the counter and caught up the keyboard. John and the concierge weren't even to the billiards room before he'd found the information he sought. He replaced the keyboard and leant casually against the counter with his back to the desk, tapping his foot. John and the concierge returned a few minutes later.
"Looks like I lost the bet," John said cheerfully to Sherlock. He waved the application form at the concierge. "I'll just get this to Hamp, then," he said. "Thanks very much."
"Thank you, sir. And Merry Christmas."
Outside on the pavement they paused to wait for a cab. "Anything?" John asked.
Sherlock shook his head. "A name and an address–"
"No. The address is a fake and the name's probably an alias."
"How do you know?"
"Philip Martin. 34 Lascelles Terrace, Dagenham," Sherlock said. "There is no 34 Lascelles Terrace in Dagenham."
"So we've got nothing."
"No. We know that Hampton's box number is 5213E. 'Martin's' is 5213F. It's an obvious recipe for confusion. 'E' and 'F' are visually similar enough that at a time like this, with the holidays coming up and people coming and going at all hours, the clerks all busy and harassed, it would be easy for one of them to hand your friend the wrong box. We also know that whoever Martin is, he doesn't want anyone at the club to know his real address.
"So the odds of your friend not knowing about the topaz have improved."
"Yes, but it was also quite simple for me to get Mr. Martin's address off the computer. It wouldn't be any more difficult for Martin to get Hampton's address, and Hampton's, I assume, isn't fake."
"Oh, Christ," John said. "You think...?"
"Call him again."
This time John was sent straight to voice mail. He looked at Sherlock and shook his head.
"Does he still keep a land line phone?" Sherlock asked.
John checked his contacts. "Yeah," he said, and dialed.
"Hampton residence," said a male voice after the sixth ring.
John didn't recognize it. "Hello? Yes, sorry, I'm trying to reach Arthur Hampton...Have I got the right number?"
"Who's calling, please?"
"I'm a friend." John said, apprehension growing.
Sherlock watched him closely, and he didn't have to hear the other end of the conversation to know what was happening.
"Who is this?" John asked.
"Sergeant Benschoff, Aylesbury police."
"Oh, God. What happened? Is Hamp all right?"
"I'm sorry, sir. I'm not at liberty to say."
"Tell me, dammit–" John began, but then the line went dead.
The train ride to Buckinghamshire took a little over an hour, but John thought it would never end. For the police to answer Hamp's phone meant something very bad had happened, he knew, but he had no way to know the nature of the disaster and his imagination tormented him. Sherlock wouldn't theorize without a basis for it, and while John couldn't guess what the detective thought about to fill the waiting, he didn't try to draw him out and they sat there in silence.
From the train station a cab took them to Hampton's house, and even from two streets away they could see the flickering blue and red lights of the emergency vehicles reflected off the bare tree limbs and nearby houses. Yellow crime scene tape circled the front yard and two ambulances stood at the curb with their doors open and lights flashing. The emergency vehicles and the dense crowd of gawking, gossiping neighbors, gathered to stare in spite of the snow and cold, required the cab driver to stop several houses away.
John shoved roughly through the crowd toward one of several officers guarding the tape line, then caught sight of Hampton's wife, Elizabeth, being tended by an EMT in the back of one of the ambulances. "Oh, my God. Lizzie," he breathed. He started toward her but the officer put out an arm and blocked his path. "I'm a doctor," he said impatiently. "I'm her doctor. Please. Lizzie–"
She heard him call, looked up, and began stumbling toward him. John brushed the policeman aside and ran to her, hugged her. "Oh, God, Lizzie," he whispered. "Lizzie. What happened? Are you alright? Where's Hamp?"
She was incoherent: sobbing, shuddering, incapable of answering his questions. He guided her back to the ambulance and eased her down onto the step. "I'm her doctor," he said to the paramedic. "Family doctor. Do you have something you can give her?"
"I was about to give her some Promethazine," the EMT said, looking at John a little doubtfully.
"Yeah, good. That's good," John said. Then to Lizzie, "Lizzie, honey. They're going to give you something now to make you feel better. It'll help." He doubted she even heard him. "Do you have her things?" he asked the paramedic. "Her phone? I need to call her family."
Sherlock stood behind the tape, watching silently as the police worked the scene. He never stopped being surprised, with forensic science and DNA technology advanced to the point where the outcome of a case could hinge on evidence at the molecular level, that the police still persisted in reducing crime scenes to cattle wades.
"Lestrade," he said to the officer guarding the line of tape, and made a perfunctory show of the detective inspector's badge. He started up the walkway, searching the ground for anything the local force might have neglected to destroy, then broke off and circled the house to the right. The recent snow along the sides of the residence had not yet been disturbed by investigators, so he easily found the footprints leading from the back alley gate to the home's rear entrance: Two men...both moving at a jog...size ten and eleven boots...Karrimor Skidos on Ten...Puratex on Eleven...both of them in the neighborhood of six-one and six-two in height. Logical: a large, athletic man like Hampton, trained as as soldier, would not be easy to subdue. He used his glass and a small pocket torch to study the marks on the door where it had been kicked in, then circled the rest of the exterior without finding any more relevant evidence.
The front door, like the back, had been kicked in. Simultaneous front and rear assault, then, catching Hampton by surprise. "Lestrade," he said to the policeman at the front door, with another sketchy wave of the badge and without waiting for acknowledgement.
In the foyer he stopped again. The place had been destroyed: someone had very obviously been looking for something. On the floor of the main room, in front of the overturned and shredded sofa and just visible from the door, a body lay covered by a yellow plastic tarp. Elizabeth Hampton's purse was on the foyer floor where she had dropped it in her shock upon walking into the scene. On a console table under a mirror a little wicker basket held several sets of keys and a well-worn black leather wallet. One key set lay atop several receipts with the current date stamped on them. Sherlock picked them up, leafed through them–and stopped. The fifth slip of paper wasn't a receipt. He darted it quickly into his pocket, dropped the others back into the basket, and moved on.
He proceeded next to the kitchen, where he paused, knelt, and used the blade of his pocket knife to gently sweep a few flakes of grey and black powder into a small zippered plastic bag. He pocketed the bag and glanced into the rest of the ground floor rooms, where he found the same disarray and destruction. He read volumes in the chaos, but it was what he didn't find that most interested him: the wooden crate of carboys. Clearly the murderers left with what they came for. Without the crate the police had no hope of interpreting this crime for what it was, and that suited Sherlock just fine.
He returned to the main room and stood over the body. Blood spatters stained the carpet and much of the nearby furniture and more had pooled liberally under one end of the sheet. He knelt and lifted the corner of the tarp: Hampton. He'd been tortured: cigarette burns covered his naked torso, four fingernails on his left hand were ripped out, and the index finger of his right hand had been hacked off. Merry Christmas, Sherlock thought. Obvious fingertip bruising around his neck and upper arms showed where he'd been restrained, confirming the fact of least three assailants. What had killed him, however, was the bullet fired point-blank into his forehead that carried away most of the back of his head.
Sherlock dropped the sheet and looked up–straight into John's face. John couldn't actually see the body–the sheet corner Sherlock had held blocked his view–but he had gone deathly pale.
"John," Sherlock said. It was a warning not to approach any closer.
John stood clenching and unclenching his left hand. He had to ask, but his throat was so tight he could barely get the word out. "Hamp?"
Sherlock gave a barely perceptible nod, and John turned on his heel and plunged back outside.
Sherlock rose and took another look around the room, but he hadn't missed anything and he knew it.
John had stopped on the front lawn and stood with his hands on his knees, trying to breathe. Not Hamp, he thought. Not now. Not after Afghanistan, not after he got home. And Lizzie: oh, God, how is she going to cope alone? He thought of their little girl, how Hamp treasured her. He couldn't stand it: another friend killed violently, and for what? For nothing. For a rock. He straightened and stared out over the snow-covered rooftops, seeing neither them nor the police nor the gathered crowd, and he swore that he would kill the people who had done this.
He felt Sherlock's hand on his shoulder. John stood perfectly still. "Sherlock," he said.
Just that one word, just his name: but Sherlock understood the appeal for his help and the promise that John would find these men with or without him. He had only one word in reply. "Yes."
They found a table in the window of a late-night diner in Aylesbury's main street. John said nothing on the way to the restaurant and now sat with his hands clasped, staring out past their reflections. The snow had begun again.
Sherlock didn't waste time offering expressions of sympathy. He was wholly focused on the case and he needed John to focus, too. He'd found a major lead on the console table and he also knew how much danger John was in now. "John," he said.
"I'm fine," John said absently, patently lying. But Sherlock wasn't asking after his mental state.
"I said I'm fine–" John began.
Sherlock leant forward. "John. I need you to listen to me. Really. Listen. What happened to your friend: it's all over that damned stone. They know he gave it to you and they'll be coming for you now."
John blinked. "What are you...? How would they know that I have it?"
Sherlock didn't answer but his eyes never left John's, and suddenly John understood. He shook his head, refusing to believe it. "Hamp would never–"
Sherlock stood up so abruptly that he knocked his chair over. "You're out of this," he snapped, and his voice was colder than John had ever heard it. "If you're not going to use your brain I'll move faster on my own." He reached for his phone. "Lestrade can send a car for you–"
Then John, too, was on his feet. "Don't you dare."
"Then focus," Sherlock snarled. "Feel later. Focus now."
They glared at each other, looking wild, and then Sherlock saw him make the decision, saw him draw himself up, pull his shoulders back, pack the pain up, and store it away. Sherlock sat down again, pulled the slip of paper from his pocket, and slid it across the table. "This was in the house," he said.
On the slip of paper was written, '8191, 720 NWULSFWG TI UMSGG UN YIWTXEFZ.' John looked up. "It's gibberish."
"Can you read it?"
"In time, yes. The first four numbers are a name. 8191."
"8191 is a Mersenne prime."
John was in no mood for a tutorial. "Sherlock," he began angrily.
"It's the smuggler's name," Sherlock said. "Mersenne. Look at the form of the note. Four digits, a comma, and then the body of the message. The number is the addressee. Look him up. There can't be that many. Try businesses first. People like this don't work from home."
John reached for his phone, opened Query, and after a few minutes of searching found Mersenne, Ltd., a mining company with offices in the City. Owned by Philippe Mersenne. "Here," he said, turning the phone toward Sherlock, who was attacking the coded message. "It's the only one connected to a business."
"Philippe Mersenne," Sherlock said. "And Philip Martin was the alias from the club. It fits."
"24 Factory Road, East Ham," John read.
"Factory's by the river," Sherlock said, returning to the cipher. "Probably a warehouse. Most of the businesses are, in that section of town."
John watched as he puzzled out the encryption. He scribbled notes as he worked, muttering excitedly under his breath like a foxhound casting for a trail, sometimes writing columns of letters, sometimes dashing them out with a stroke of his pen and starting over. Finally he gave a little cry of triumph.
"That was fast."
"They're just smugglers," Sherlock said. "They're not trying to impress MI6. They just want something obscure to casual readers." He showed the translation to John.
'720 Musgrave Road. Three p.m. Thursday.'
"It doesn't give a date," John said. "How do you know which Thursday it means?"
"If it were any but the subsequent Thursday they'd have included a date," Sherlock said. "It's assumed."
"Okay..." John was trying to keep up. "Mersenne is a smuggler. He picked up the wrong package at the club and he killed Hamp trying to get his own package back."
"He did get it back. There was no crate or any other bottles at the house. He's got the jewels from those bottles. What he's missing is the Khan. He needs that stone, John. He can't face the Russians without it."
"Russian mafia. Bratva. Solntsevskaya Bratva, at a guess, but there's no way to be certain with what we have now."
"The bottle. The blue carboy."
"It was made with a manufacturing technique specific to Eastern Europe and the old Soviet bloc countries. Fairly primitive, but they still use it today. The Great Khan was discovered in Russia and housed in St. Petersburg." He reached into his pocket and produced the little plastic bag filled with grey dust. "The cigarette ash dropped at Hampton's house: Sobranie. Made in Russia since 2005. It makes sense, John. Russia's been in a state of political upheaval for a hundred years. The law there is barely even a guideline. The Bratva has its fingers in everything and it's branching out:: Europe, England, America. Gems are the easiest things in the world to smuggle, and with law enforcement practically non-existent and everyone open to bribes anyway it's an easy source of cash for the gangs."
"Mersenne's a Russian gangster, then."
Sherlock shook his head. "He's probably just a middle-man. A mule, almost certainly with no knowledge of the real structure. He might not even know who he's working for. The killers, though: At least one of them is a Bratva enforcer."
"How do you know?"
Sherlock hesitated. "I know the signs."
John didn't pursue it. Instead he said, "The drop for the rest of the jewels isn't for two days. What are we going to do in the meantime?"
"We're going after Mersenne. He's looking for you now, remember."
"We could go to Baker Street and wait for him?"
"No. Tonight. Before he expects it. We have to push this, John. Push it hard and keep them off balance."
John considered. "The warehouse?"
By the time they reached East Ham's waterfront warehouse district it was nearly 11 o'clock. Sherlock gave the cab driver an address for an apartment building on Albert Road, which served the dual purpose of misdirecting the driver and allowing them to reconnoiter the neighborhood as they approached the warehouse. They walked west down Albert, wormed under the mesh fencing for the railroad, crossed the tracks, and hopped the fence on the other side, stepping out of the weeds onto the verge of Factory Road. The last Woolwich Ferry had sailed, so they expected no vehicle traffic and in fact saw none. Except for the usual city noise from a half-mile distant residential neighborhood, the night was quiet and still.
Twenty-four Factory Road consisted of two ten-unit warehouses with an expanse of pavement between that was divided into employee parking slots and a staging area for lorries. Units numbered from 1-10A lined the east side of the parking area and and 1-10B the west. Some businesses within the little industrial park occupied just one unit, while others used two or more. Outside the main entrance gate a To Let billboard advertised a standard industrial estate with refurbished units from 800 to 12,500 square feet. The Mersenne Mining Company, Ltd. leased two connected units at the southwest corner of the park.
At this time of night the gate was closed, although it was not a very formidable obstacle. Made of galvanized steel rails and pickets, but with no razor wire or any real means of keeping people out, it was nevertheless guarded by cameras that maintained unblinking watch over the property. Sherlock wasn't satisfied with the camera placement, so they continued west past the two warehouse buildings and reached another drive with access to the back of the complex. There another gate stood open. Just inside, a long commercial lorry stood parallel to the back of the warehouse and eight other commercial vehicles had been backed up to the various loading bays, although none were running and the overhead doors of the bays were all closed. More important, this side of the complex held no cameras.
They slipped between the parallel parked lorry and the warehouse's outer wall. The vehicle shielded them from the view of anyone in the road, although not a car had passed since they exited the cab. Once they emerged from the shadow of the lorry they made their way unseen to Mersenne's warehouse. Units 9B and 10B, in the southwest corner of the complex, were conjoined into a single large unit marked with a small sign reading "Mersenne Mining." A metal stairway led to a small landing with an entry door at the level of the truck bays. Sherlock made a quick job of the lock and they stepped inside.
A single light bulb burned at the far end of the unit over the main entrance that would exit to the pavement space between the warehouses. The warehouse unit itself consisted of one large concrete-floored center space where palettes were offloaded and stored and a few grubby offices lining the perimeter. Midway along the right-hand side several elderly vending machines cast a low light from within a small break room, and a mechanic's workbench stood against the wall just past it. Mersenne's personal office, labeled with a placard reading "P. Mersenne," was on the left, most of the way to the other door. Sherlock picked that lock as well.
Inside the dusty, one-room office a cluttered desk took up most of the space. Behind it two four-drawer file cabinets and a floor safe stood against the wall.
"Lights?" John asked.
"Yes," Sherlock said. "There won't be anyone here at this hour and we won't be long. Check the desk, then the files," he added. "See if you can find a home address and anything that might connect Mersenne to the Russians."
It took John less than a minute to turn up a two year-old date book with Mersenne's home address on the first page. He tore the page out and pocketed it. "Got the address."
Sherlock grunted. "Check the files."
The first three drawers of the file cabinet yielded nothing, but in the back of the bottom drawer John found a manila envelope labeled "8191." He upended it on the desk and out fluttered a pile of paper slips bearing encoded messages like the one Sherlock had found in Aylesbury. "Got it," he said, and he heard a click as Sherlock defeated the safe.
"Me, too," Sherlock said. Inside the safe were a dozen or so little baize bags of loose gemstones and the three carboys taken from Hampton's house: one deep red, one dark green, and one milky white, all made of the same type of heavy, opaque glass as the one that held the topaz, and all with the gold goose medallion. Sherlock smiled, but there was no humor in his pale grey eyes.
"Sherlock," John said, as he spread the paper scraps on the desk. "Look: more of that code. Can you read these?"
"They're all dates," Sherlock said, sorting through them. "See the 8191 again? The rest of it...dates and times." Suddenly he seized one with a delighted cry, and John could see that it didn't match the format of the others. It was much longer, for a start, and he didn't see the "8191" designation anywhere.
Sherlock scanned it eagerly. "This is the key to their system," he said. "It must have been one of the original communiques. They color-code the bottles to match the kind of gem being smuggled inside it. That way no one ever has to ask or guess. There's never any doubt. Red for rubies, green for emeralds." He pointed to the safe with the three bottles.
"White for...diamonds?" John asked.
"And blue for blue topaz."
"Sapphires, more commonly," Sherlock said, "but in this case, yes. Anything else in those files?"
"Not so far."
"It doesn't matter. This is enough. We have Mersenne. Come on." He switched off the light and listened at the door before opening it.
They were half-way to the door through which they'd entered when it opened to admit four tall, heavy, muscular men. They were chatting and joking between themselves but they stopped in amazement at the sight of John and Sherlock.
"Oi!" one cried. "What the bloody hell? Who are you? What are you doing here? How'd you get in here?"
Sherlock regarded them coolly. "Interesting," he said. "Newham patois with a trace of Russian accent."
Beside him John realized that he was facing Hamp's murderers, and he tensed visibly.
"Last chance, mate."
"I'm not your mate," Sherlock said. He backed up, though, slowly, and held his hands up at waist height, palms out, like a man hoping to avoid a conflict. John moved with him and Sherlock wished, not for the first time, that John were a better actor, because everything in his eyes and stance said there was nothing he would rather do than kill these guys.
Sherlock retreated until they were abeam the mechanic's workbench, and then he stopped.
"Put these guys in the river," the gang leader growled.
The enforcers split up, two heading for John, two for Sherlock. As they charged him Sherlock turned quickly away to his left, toward the work table, as though he were trying to run, but as he pivoted he shrugged out of his greatcoat. His momentum as he turned helped him shed it, and he spun until he faced the oncoming thugs again, caught the coat with his right hand as it slid off his arm, and swept a three-foot lug wrench off the bench with his left. He flung the coat toward the faces of the men advancing on him and swung the metal bar hard against the knees of the man to his left. The man shrieked as his right kneecap shattered, but before his leg had buckled Sherlock's backswing crushed his left elbow with an audible crack. The entire balletic maneuver was over in less than two seconds.
The second gangster threw Sherlock's coat aside, stepped over his screaming friend, and came on. Sherlock deftly shifted the bar to his right hand and swung it low again, at the man's knees. The man jumped back, giving Sherlock time to grab a length of chain off the wall near the bench.
Sherlock let him advance, and when he was within range he flicked out the chain, which wrapped around the man's right arm. Sherlock pulled hard on the chain, and in spite of the weight difference between them the gangster stumbled forward, off-balance. Just before they made contact Sherlock leapt up to head-butt him and then, still holding the chain, he turned sharply to his left, drew up his elbow, and smashed it into the man's windpipe, dropping him to the floor.
Sherlock had only half-heard John's side of the conflict and had been much too busy to see anything, but now as he paused he saw that one of John's opponents was already down, curled on the floor and moaning. He was also in time to see John throw up his left arm to block a wild, wide right from his other attacker, trap the guy's arm, sweep his near leg, and drop him to his knees. John squeezed the man's arm alongside his own body, effectively immobilizing it. The gangster's left arm remained free to potentially block John's strike, but John didn't swing from the sky. The instant the man's knees hit the floor he drove his right hand straight up from his centerline, twisting from his hips to add power. The heel of his hand drove into the gangster's face with all John's weight and fury behind it. Two more hard, fast strikes followed and then he released the man's arm, grabbed his head from behind, stepped to the side, and pulled down with all his force as he raised his own knee to meet the thug's face. Three times he brought his knee up, and he showed no sign of stopping. He worked in silence, with deadly intent.
"John," Sherlock called. "John, that's enough. John–!" he cried. He stepped in, caught John's arm, and pulled him aside–then stepped hastily back as John rounded on him, his blood up, tensed to strike, his eyes wild. "No!" Sherlock put his hands up.
John's reason finally caught up with his reflexes. He recognized Sherlock, and he stopped.
"They're finished," Sherlock said quietly. "That's enough."
John was splattered with blood, none of it his, and still breathing hard, but he put his hands up, ducked his chin, and took a step back: putting Sherlock in charge.
The warehouse contained no dearth of cordage convenient for securing their prisoners, although only Alexei, the leader, remained potentially capable of putting up any kind of resistance. Of the other three, only one was even semi-conscious. Alexei, however, they installed in the office chair.
"Now, then," Sherlock said to him. "Most people in this situation would make you tell them all about your
little smuggling operation. Fortunately, I'm not most people. I'm going to talk, and then you're going to answer any questions my friend here might have."
Alexei stared at him with his one good eye. The other was already swollen shut and blood actively dripped from his smashed lips onto his shirt. It was probably as well that Sherlock intended to do the talking.
"You work for Philippe Mersenne," Sherlock began. "Mersenne works for the Solntsevskaya Bratva."
Alexi looked surprised in spite of himself. "How do you know that?"
"I'm Sherlock Holmes," Sherlock said with an imperious lift of his chin. "It's my job to know things that other people don't. Mersenne is a mule for Solntsevskaya," he continued. "He received a package yesterday. A package from The Carboy Club. The Carboy Club is a Russian front company that uses color-coded liquor bottles to smuggle gemstones out of Russia. Unfortunately there was a bit of a mix-up and Mersenne picked up a crate without the gems inside. The man who picked up the crate with the gems did so accidentally. That's the man you killed earlier tonight."
Alexi spat contemptuously. "You don't have any evidence."
Sherlock smiled coldly. "Oh, I have a lot of evidence."
Sherlock reached toward Alexei and the man shrank away, but Sherlock plucked a packet of cigarettes from his shirt pocket. "Sobranie," he said again, holding up the packet. "Cigarette ash is very distinctive if you know what to look for. The ash from the crime scene will match the ash produced by these cigarettes. Not too many Britishers walking around with this brand in their pockets."
"So you have cigarettes," Alexei said. He wasn't bright enough to fully appreciate the value of forensic evidence of the type Sherlock had collected. "So what?"
"Oh, I have more than cigarettes," Sherlock said. "I have the smugglers' cipher. 8191. Sound familiar?"
Sherlock shook his head sadly and glanced at John. "So little imagination," he sighed. "I have the carboys. In fact, I have the blue carboy."
That got Alexei's attention.
"Well," Sherlock corrected himself, "he has the blue carboy." He pointed at John.
Alexei's eyes went to John and he actually sank lower in the chair: that unassuming-looking man was the one they'd been sent out to kill tonight. He'd just thrashed Alexei and one of Alexei's men into a bloody huddle, and now he was staring at Alexei as though he'd like nothing better than to finish the job.
"Yes," Sherlock said, echoing his thoughts. "The man Mersenne sent you out to kill tonight."
"The second man," John said between his teeth. "Only I'm not pinned to the floor being tortured."
"What do you want?" Alexei asked, not taking his eyes from John.
"I want Mersenne's Russian contact."
"No," Alexei said automatically.
"John, get that pry bar." Sherlock pointed to the workbench outside.
John turned to obey, but at a sudden gasp from Alexei he turned back. Sherlock was standing as he had been before, but Alexei was now pale, sweating, and staring terrified at Sherlock.
"Okay," Alexei cried. "Okay. What do you want to know?"
"Phone number," Sherlock snapped.
"030 7930 1070," Alexi quavered.
Sherlock turned away from him, withdrew his phone, and typed.
John wasn't on the same page anymore. "What're you doing?"
"Texting," Sherlock said. "We send the Bratva a text in their own code telling them that Mersenne has the bottles and wants to meet here immediately for the exchange."
"We have the bottles."
"Exactly. The Bratva aren't going to be happy when they arrive and find an empty safe." Sherlock looked at Alexei. "Tell John what the Bratva will do when they think Mersenne has double-crossed them."
Alexei looked from one to the other and licked his lips nervously. "They will kill him," he said. "They will take a long time to do it."
Sherlock turned to John. "Hampton was your friend," he said, his voice low. "If I send this text Mersenne is a dead man. What do you want to do?"
John stared at the phone in Sherlock's hand. He thought about his friend Hamp and about Lizzie and about how much Hamp had loved her. He thought about what he saw at their house tonight, about what Lizzie saw, and how she would never, ever be able to erase the sight of her murdered husband from her memory. He thought about what he'd seen in war, and he'd never expected it to be brought home to a man who survived that violence as a hero, only to be murdered over a mistake–a mistake about a rock–by men who weren't fit to breathe the same air.
Sherlock watched his face, guessing at least in part what he was thinking, and he was neither surprised nor dismayedwhen John said, in a voice distorted by emotion, "Send it." It was what Sherlock would have done.
Sherlock pressed the button and raised the phone to his ear. "Lestrade."
John gaped at him.
"We've found some people you might like to meet," Sherlock said conversationally. "Twenty-four Factory Road. Bring a couple of ambulances, as well."
John glared at him, outraged. "What are you doing? I thought–what about the text? You were going to send a text!" Sherlock's eyes never left him and John, staring back, suddenly realized what he'd done.
"Damn you," he said quietly. It took all the self-control he had left, but he turned and left the office without killing Sherlock.
Sherlock and DI Lestrade watched as EMTs loaded the last of the three most badly-injured thugs into an ambulance. Alexei waited handcuffed in the back of a police car.
"Mersenne's on his way to the Yard," Lestrade said. "We've got people going through his house now."
Sherlock gave no sign of having heard, but Lestrade was used to that. "So," he said, "Russian mafia gem-smuggling ring. That's a little bit out of the ordinary even for you two. Want to tell me how you got involved?"
"A man was killed earlier tonight in Aylesbury, Bucks."
"Yeah?" Lestrade didn't know anything about it: not his jurisdiction.
"The victim was a friend of John's. Army buddy."
"Oh, God." Lestrade glanced over at John, who was sitting well away from them on the edge of one of the loading bays. He was too far away to hear them. He sat with his hands folded in his lap and his legs dangling over the rim of the bay. He happened at that moment to be gazing in the other direction and didn't notice Lestrade looking at him. "That explains the ambulances, I suppose."
"The victim was involved in the smuggling ring?"
"No. He had something they wanted, though. Mersenne and the victim belonged to the same London club. The victim–Hampton–accidentally picked up a package there meant for Mersenne. A shipment of jewels. Mersenne traced him to Bucks and this group–" gesturing at the departing ambulance "–murdered him for the return of the package."
Lestrade frowned. "But if they got what they wanted, why murder the poor bastard?"
Sherlock shrugged. "Russian mafia. It's what they do."
"But how'd you two find out about it?"
"Hampton came to visit John yesterday afternoon while he was in town on business. Left his gloves behind in the foyer. John called later to say he'd found them, and the police answered the phone."
Lestrade accepted that at face value. "Well," he said after a pause. "I'd better be off." He glanced at John again. "Tell him I'm sorry about his friend, will you?"
"I mean it, Sherlock. For God's sake, do something human for once."
Sherlock sidled up to John where he sat on the edge of the loading bay. He knew John better than he'd known anyone in his life, but knowing didn't always imply understanding. Just now he wasn't completely certain of what his reception was going to be. He cleared his throat. John turned to look at him and Sherlock said carefully, "You're still angry."
John didn't answer right away. "You'd have sent that text," he said finally. "If it had been up to you, you'd have sent that text."
"But you wouldn't send it for me."
John stared at Sherlock then. He stared at him for so long that Sherlock fidgeted. He wasn't used to being studied the way he studied other people, and he wondered what John was thinking.
John finally looked away, out into the darkness. He took a deep breath, held it, let it out. Then he said, very quietly, "Thank you."
Christmas Eve morning arrived in Baker Street. John and Sherlock lingered at the breakfast table, sipping coffee and reading the newspaper.
"Oh, my God," John exclaimed suddenly.
"What is it?"
"Did you know about this?"
"John, in spite of popular belief I can't read minds. Did I know about what?"
"Is he?" Sherlock said blandly. He was utterly unmoved by the news, but the polite thing was to ask a follow-up question. "How?"
"In his prison cell. They were holding him for trial. They think it might have been suicide, but..." John read a bit further. "...they don't know how he could have done it. Says there were no marks of violence on the body."
"Never eat the sandwiches in the lockup, John."
John stared at him. "You think the mafia got to him and poisoned him? In prison?"
"I think he lived by the sword."
John thought about that, then leant back and crossed his arms. "You knew that was going to happen."
"Not a mind-reader." Sherlock turned over a page of the newspaper.
"No: You knew Mersenne wasn't going to make it to trial because the Russians never got their topaz back. You knew they'd think he stole it from them even if we did turn him over to the police."
Sherlock shrugged. "I thought it was likely."
John shook his head. "Not 'likely.' You're Sherlock Holmes, remember?"
Sherlock cocked an eye at him.
"You don't do 'likely.' You do 'certain.'"
"And all this time I thought you weren't paying attention." He gave the paper a shake and resumed reading.
John didn't know what to say. He knew that as hard as Sherlock worked against the criminal class, his own adherence to the strict letter of the law was wholly situational. Sherlock was no vigilante, but if he thought that justice could be achieved unofficially he was perfectly willing to cut the authorities out of his calculations. John wasn't sure whether Sherlock would have presented him with the same opportunity to decide Mersenne's fate if the Russian mob hadn't been available to rig the outcome, but he did know that Sherlock's methods had guaranteed that Hamp would be known to the police only as a victim, and not as a potential suspect.
Before John could expand further on that idea, however, they heard Mrs. Hudson coming up the steps, humming "We Wish You A Merry Christmas" as she did so.
"Oh, God," Sherlock groaned.
"Ooh-hoo," Mrs. Hudson called, tapping the door frame. "Merry Christmas!" In one hand she carried a fully-stuffed gift bag and in the other the post. John hurried over to help her with it.
"I've brought you boys a little something for Christmas," she said. "You know, you really should get a tree to put your things under." She waved the little bundle of mail and laid it on the café table.
John took the bag from her and placed it on the kitchen table. "Mrs. Hudson," he chided gently. "You didn't have to bring us anything. Thank you. No tree," he added in a whispered aside. "Sherlock would ignite it to study the char patterns it made on the walls."
She laughed. "You're probably right, dear. Oh–there's a gypsy tart in here for you, Sherlock."
Sherlock didn't look up from the paper.
"Sherlock," John said.
Well, if he must: "Thank you."
John found a place in the fridge for the foil-wrapped tart and Mrs. Hudson carried the bag into the sitting room with the intention of setting the gifts out on the mantel. She started humming "We Wish You A Merry Christmas" again.
"I can't get that song out of my head," she admitted. "It's pretty, though, don't you think? I love carols–they're so cheerful–and that's my favorite one. What's your favorite?" she asked John.
John considered. "Coventry Carol, I think," he decided
"Ooh, that's a beautiful song. It's a bit–" she began, but Sherlock abruptly lowered the newspaper and glared at her and she quickly changed the half-formed word "sad" to "traditional." Sherlock put the paper up again.
"I guess it is a little old-fashioned, really," John agreed. "But it's pretty."
"Now," Mrs. Hudson said, taking a present from the bag. "No peeking before tomorrow morning."
Sherlock was forbidden by long tradition from picking up presents and identifying them before they'd been unwrapped, but from the way he was eyeing the boxes it was clear that he didn't need to handle them. "Jumper," he said. "Socks."
"Sherlock," Mrs. Hudson tutted.
"Give it a rest," John sighed. He reached over and retrieved a brightly-wrapped package from the clutter on the table. "This is from both of us," he told Mrs. Hudson as he handed it to her, "but it was Sherlock's idea."
"It was not."
"Oh, thank you!" she exclaimed. "You boys didn't have to do that."
"I told him that," Sherlock noted.
John didn't even bother to correct him that time. He kissed her affectionately on the cheek. "Of course we did. Merry Christmas, Mrs. Hudson."
She patted his arm. "Merry Christmas, John. Merry Christmas, Sherlock."
John was past ready for a quiet night in, and that Christmas Eve it was quiet: thick, fluffy snow fell, muffling what little noise drifted up from the street, there was no chance of a client, the telly was off, and a fire snapped and flickered in the fireplace. Supper was over, the kitchen was–well, the kitchen wasn't clean, but the dishes were washed and put away. John came down from his room in pajama bottoms and dressing gown with a Patrick O'Brian novel in his hand.
As he passed through the kitchen he noticed the mail still on the café table: several bills, but also five Christmas cards that had just made it under the wire. He left the bills and carried the cards to the sitting room where Sherlock sat reading in his leather chair, looking content by his standards: no tapping, no twiddling, no tension. Two of the cards were from former clients and addressed to both of them, while the other three were addressed to John alone. When he had read each card he deposited it in a little basket on the end table.
Sherlock saw him go still when he reached the gold foil envelope. He could see perfectly well who it was from and he watched attentively as John stared at the envelope. He looked at it for so long that Sherlock began to wonder whether he would open it, but he finally slid the letter opener under the flap.
Dear John, [the card said] It's been two days since your incredibly generous gift arrived, and I still don't know what I can possibly say to thank you. It's by far the kindest, most generous thing anyone has ever done for us. It's going to be hard to explain to Amy how she lost her daddy, but at least now I know I'll never have to worry about how to pay for her education. Thank you so much. We'll be in your debt forever, and I know Hamp would say the same. Love always, Lizzie."
John read the letter twice before he looked up, utterly baffled. He couldn't even decide what to ask first.
"Problem?" Sherlock said.
"Yeah. I don't know. This card. It's from Lizzie Hampton. She's thanking me for something and I have no idea what she's talking about."
"Hmm. May I?"
John handed him the letter.
Sherlock tilted the envelope to the light, peered intently at it from every angle, then repeated the process with the card. Read the note inside, then handed card and envelope back to John.
"It appears," Sherlock said in his rapid-fire, expository way, "that someone has deposited two hundred thirty-seven thousand, four hundred and fifty-three pounds into your bank account, stolen one of your cheques, forged your handwriting, and sent a cheque made out to Elizabeth Hampton for the same amount. If you reconciled your cheque book more often than once every eight months you'd have noticed it before now. Obviously."
This cleared nothing up for John. "What the hell are you talking about?"
"The Hermitage Museum was touchingly grateful when I returned their rock," Sherlock said in his normal voice. "They've been offering a reward for its safe return since it was stolen last century. I believe the original sum was the equivalent of two thousand pounds sterling. Taking interest and inflation into account, over a period of one hundred and six years that reward came as of last week to two hundred thirty-seven thousand, four hundred and fifty-three pounds."
"You gave the reward money to Lizzie."
"You gave the reward money to her, John. You read the letter. Twice. Do try to keep up."
"Sherlock..." John said wonderingly.
Sherlock reached for his violin. "That stone has done a lot of damage since it was discovered," he said. "Centuries of damage. It was time to balance the scales a bit."
John looked down at the card in his hand. He shook his head. "Sherlock..." he said again.
Sherlock frowned. John was in real danger of devolving this conversation into sentiment, and that would be intolerable. He stood up abruptly and in a casual, offhand tone he said, "Did you know that blue topaz is the state gemstone of the American state of Texas?"
John looked up at him, baffled by the non-sequitur.
Sherlock turned toward the window, wedged the violin under his chin, and lifted the bow. "Blue topaz," he said, as he produced the first haunting notes of Coventry Carol, "is also considered a symbol of friendship. Merry Christmas, John."