Once upon a time there were twin brothers who lived in a cottage in Somerset. One was called Mycroft and the other was called Sherrinford and they were as like as two peas in a pod.
On discovering she was going to have twins, their mother had given up a promising career in applied mathematics. It might have been feasible, she said, to algorithmically describe the pulsations and pressure oscillations of a combustion event whilst tending to one baby, but two really did require the majority of her attention.
Little Mikey and Sherry grew up in the rural idyll of their mother's choosing and their father's cheerful provision. Mummy taught them at home rather than sending them to the primary school in the nearest village. She said that the twins would do much better if they could learn about the world around them by exploring it, rather than always waiting for someone else to explain everything.
The people in the village said there was something odd about the Holmes boys. One of them, in particular, would stare impassively at whomsoever crossed his path until their skin felt uncomfortable and they gave into the temptation to hurry away.
The other twin seemed slightly more normal for a six year-old, although he did sometimes manage to sneer down his nose at a person, even though he was about three feet tall, and somehow he could tell what you'd been up to that day, even if you hadn't mentioned it to anyone else.
It was generally agreed that Dr Holmes was doing everyone a favour by keeping her sons home from school. How was anyone supposed to concentrate on anything with the dead-eyed boy and the nosy parker following them around all day? The children would be put off their work, never mind the teacher.
When the twins were seven years old, Mummy went into hospital for a week and came home with a tiny, wrinkled, flaky-skinned baby boy all wrapped up in a crochet blanket.
'Sherlock is a little bit over-cooked,' Mummy explained as Sherry tried to peel some of the skin from between the baby's toes.
'I calculate he was born ten days beyond the usual gestational period for a human,' Mikey announced. 'Will he always be slow?'
Mummy and Daddy laughed. Then they both wondered if Mycroft had somehow witnessed Sherlock's conception and blushed at the thought. It was often better not to ask where he was concerned, though. Nothing ever seemed to escape his powers of observation - it was a jolly good job he was beginning to learn a modicum of tact.
'I don't like him,' said Sherry.
'Oh, you never like anything!' his father replied. 'Aren't you lucky we love you anyway?'
'I'm bored now. Can I go and visit the gamekeeper at Middlestone House? He said he'd show me how to trap vermin.' Sherry's face glowed with an unusual amount of eagerness at the thought.
'Why are little boys such bloodthirsty creatures?' Mummy exclaimed. 'Yes you may go but come home in time for dinner, and for goodness sake wash your hands as soon as you get back.'
'Yes!' Sherry dutifully leaned up for a kiss from his mother and submitted to having his hair tousled by his father. 'Come on, Mike!'
Mycroft eyed baby Sherlock curiously. 'I don't feel like walking all the way there,' he said. 'I'd rather stay here and read a book.'
'Don't be boring, brother dear,' Sherry wheedled. 'There might be rats!'
'I know. I don't want to see them.'
Sherry scowled. 'Fine. You'd only hold me back anyway.'
Four years passed and the twins grew taller and leaner. Baby Sherlock had de-flaked by the time he was six weeks old and remained plump and glossy ever since. He resembled his brothers very little but he worshipped the ground they walked upon and followed them wherever he could.
The twins had taken their eleven-plus exam the winter previously. Unsurprisingly, Mycroft had sailed through and was off to grammar school in the autumn. Sherry had not done quite so well and was set for the local comprehensive school instead. He was furious about it.
'They marked my exam paper wrong!' he insisted.
'No they didn't,' Mummy said. 'I phoned especially to check. It doesn't matter. You boys spend so much time together at home you'll barely miss each other at all.'
'But Mycroft thinks he's better than me and he's not!'
No, darling. You're just different. It's a good job, really, or we'd never be able to tell the two of you apart.'
'Different,' Sherry repeated thoughtfully. 'Yes I am and it's good. Who'd want to be like boring old Mikey anyway?'
'I want to be like Mycroff but he says I'm too stupid!' Sherlock piped up. 'Am I stupid?'
'You're an imbecile,' Sherry said with great seriousness.
'Sherry!' his mother snapped. 'Do try to be nicer to your little brother.'
'All right. Sherlock, do you want to come and play in the woods?'
'Oh, yes! I like watching Redbeard chase the rabbits.'
'Come on then.'
It was a beautiful summer's day and the leaves of the oak trees shone steadily in the still air. The Holmes's red setter snuffled and wuffled his way after a hundred leporid scent trails, long tail waving gracefully behind him. Sherlock trotted happily beside his brother, reeling off an almost continuous stream of questions.
'Why is it colder in shadows?'
'Because there's no sun in shadows.'
'Why does it get dark at night?'
'Because God draws the curtains.'
'Why can't I run as fast as Redbeard?'
'Because he's got four legs and you've only got two.'
'What's that noise?'
The boys both stopped walking to listen. Somewhere to the left of them, Redbeard pushed through the undergrowth and snapped a twig. Through his uneven racket a low, steady drone could be heard.
'It sounds like bees!' Sherlock said. 'Is there a tree with a nest like in Winnie the Pooh?'
'I don't think so,' Sherry replied. 'Let's go and see.'
They moved forwards, instinctively crouching and treading carefully, hunters on the prowl. Sherlock reached to hold his brother's hand but clutched air instead.
'Pooey! What's that smell?'
'It's over here,' Sherry said, confidently stepping off the path through a natural tunnel between two holly bushes.
'There are flies,' said Sherlock. 'The noise is all flies. What are they buzzing around?'
'Come and look.'
Sherlock peered closer, batting a fly away from his face until he realised what he was looking at. He promptly stepped back and fell over. 'It's a rabbit and its eye has gone! Eeeew!'
Sherry prodded the corpse with a stick and flipped it over. Dead leaves stuck to black-red blood until he flicked them aside, one-by-one. Sherlock grabbed his brother's leg and pulled himself upright, keeping hold of a handful of Sherry's denim shorts before leaning forwards again.
'What do you think happened to it?' Sherry asked.
'Something killed it,' Sherlock whispered. 'This rabbit was murdered!'
'How was it murdered?'
'I don't know. I can see gooey stuff on its tummy and blood all over.'
Footsteps crunched behind them, accompanied by the pant and wheeze of Redbeard straining to reach the prize. Mikey held his collar firmly in both hands and let him choke with excitement. 'It's obvious,' he said, staring at his twin over Sherlock's head. 'Can't you tell?'
'There aren't any lions in these woods, thicko,' said Sherry. 'Narrow it down to things closer to home.'
Sherlock racked his brains. 'A fox? Foxes eat rabbits!'
Mycroft tilted his head. 'It's possible.'
'It wasn't a fox.' Sherry frowned. 'Look, Sherlock, can you see the snare?'
Sherlock looked again. His brother poked at the rabbit's front leg until a slim piece of wire popped up from the detritus on the ground and stretched taut in the dappled sunlight. One end was wrapped around a nearby hazel sapling, the other remained attached to the rabbit's paw, which waved a forlorn greeting as Sherry wiggled his stick. The flies that had gathered contentedly swirled in buzzing protest.
'We should go home,' said Mycroft calmly.
'You take Sherlock,' Sherry agreed. 'I'll stay and tidy up.'
The following Christmas, Mummy and Daddy took them all to see the pantomime at the Bristol Old Vic theatre. Mycroft insisted on reading his book, squinting in the low light. Sheridan watched the antics on stage with expressionless boredom. Sherlock was entranced.
'I still want to be a pirate!' he gabbled in the car on the way home. 'Peter Pan can fly but pirates have swords and ships and go looking for treasure.'
'Would you like a pirate's sword?' Sherry asked.
'I'll make a pair in woodwork lessons and we can duel to the death.'
'Brilliant!' Sherlock squeaked.
Their parents raised their eyebrows at each other across the gear stick and handbrake. It wasn't like Sherry to be so kind but perhaps he'd been imbued with a little Christmas spirit.
Sure enough, a month later, Sherry came home with two curved, wooden cutlasses tucked under his arm. Mummy was in the garden, cutting back the flowering borders before it got dark, and Daddy wasn't yet home from work. Sherry found Sherlock in his bedroom, trying to take off his primary school jumper at the same time as kicking off his shoes.
'Stand and deliver,' he drawled, pressing the blade of one of the swords across Sherlock's throat.
'Stupid! That's highwaymen, not pirates!' Sherlock gasped, finally twisting his head free of the jumper, dark curls crackling with static.
'Don't call me stupid,' Sherry protested, prodding him hard in the chest.
'But you are! I always thought I was the slow one until I started at school. The others are weird, though, they don't know anything and neither do you.'
'I know everything!' Sherry shouted angrily. 'I could kill you with your own sword and name all your organs as I chop them out!'
'That's not nice,' Sherlock whined, turning and stomping towards his bedroom door. 'You said you'd duel with me and duels have rules.'
Sherry brought the flat of his cutlass blade down hard across his little brother's back. It landed with a resounding thwack. 'Boring!'
Sherlock yelped and whirled around, a furious ball of indignation. 'Is not. What's the point of fighting unless it's fair? You can't find out who’s really best if one person cheats. Give me my sword!'
'No. You're a stupid, boring little fucker and I'm keeping both of these swords for myself.'
Sherlock gasped. 'You said the f-word. I'm telling Mummy.'
'So what? She can't stop me.'
'She can take the swords away. Confiscate them.'
Sherry shrugged. 'I'll find them. And then I'll kill you.'
That evening, Sherlock determinedly played pirates with Redbeard and Daddy examined the carefully sharpened and pointed edge of one cutlass, muttering about phoning the school to complain about the obvious lack of supervision in the woodwork classroom. He hid them both in the greenhouse at the bottom of the garden. Mycroft watched silently from the bathroom window.
The following morning, Mummy came downstairs to put the kettle on while it was still dark and bitterly cold. The rest of the house slept blissfully and it wasn't until she was sipping her tea and deciding whether to make soup or start on that year's marmalade that she heard the whining.
Redbeard lay at the bottom of the kitchen door steps, a dusting of frost sparkling across his coat as it caught the electric light. He was cold beyond shivering but still able to emit a squeaking sound on each painful exhale of his breath.
Ever mindful of the children, Mummy stifled her horrified cry and bent to pick him up. She saw blood on the paving slabs and felt it coating her fingers with unwelcome warmth. 'What the hell happened?' she murmured. 'What's wrong with you?'
'Where's Daddy and Redbeard?' Sherlock asked, directly after a late and lengthy breakfast of bacon and eggs.
Mikey carefully buttered his second slice of toast and said nothing. Sherry looked up expectantly. Their mother did something splashy with the washing up and reached for a tea towel to dry her hands. 'Sherlock,' she began, and the twins could tell by her eyes she was about to start lying, 'Redbeard has been asked to go and live on a special farm for gifted animals.'
'Because he's a very clever dog and that's where clever dogs go.'
'I don't want him to go.'
'I know, dear, but he'll be happier.'
'How can he be happier? He always eats his food and he always wants to run around or play pirates.'
'Yes but he likes to do other things, too, and he can't do them here.'
'It's like doggy university,' Mikey added and his mother's face lit up.
'Exactly!' she agreed.
'Will he come home for the holidays like Susie Holden's big brother who goes to Birmingham?' Sherlock asked doubtfully.
'It's too far away,' Sherry replied. 'Redbeard is never coming back, brother dear.'
Mycroft pushed his chair back abruptly. 'I'm going to do my homework. I don't want anyone to disturb me. Mummy, may I use your computer?'
'Yes, but I absolutely forbid you to use the acoustic modem. We had a phone bill last week and the calls to America were astronomical!'
'They weren't all me.'
'Well I certainly haven't had time for bulletin boards recently so most of them were. Promise, Mikey?'
'Lick her arse, why don't you?' Sherry whispered viciously.
Mycroft stared at his twin and visibly swallowed. 'I don't want to be disturbed,' he repeated and dashed up the stairs to Mummy's study.
Mycroft took four of his GCSE's two years early and got A's in all of them. Sherry was suspended for knocking out another boy's front tooth with a hockey stick - something he insisted was an unfortunate accident and the school maintained was a deliberate attack in front of three witnesses. Their father tried to reason with him gently, and when that failed, instigated a strict regimen of homework checking and brisk evening walks, no matter what the weather was doing.
The spring was late and cold that year. Snow lay on the ground for a full fortnight, driving the farmers to bring in their livestock and keeping the twins home from school for several days until the roads were cleared. Mycroft volunteered to walk Sherlock to and from primary school each day, fielding a thousand breathless questions on everything from Henry VIII to the solar system. Sherry disappeared into the woods for hours on end, claiming to love the way snow changed everything, rendering it worthy of re-exploration.
By the tenth day of the freeze, Mycroft was back in school so Mummy walked into the village to pick up Sherlock at half-past three. She was met by a small cluster of murmuring women gathered in one corner of the cleared and gritted playground. Something seriously gossip-worthy had happened.
'Good afternoon, ladies!'
'Hello, Miriam,' Susie Holden's mother replied.
The women looked at each other in silent conference before Mrs Holden appointed herself as spokesperson. 'There's been some funny business at Middlestone Farm. It's awful, really.'
'What sort of funny business?'
'Something's been attacking the sheep!' Stevie Wilkinson's mother butted in.
'Really? Is there a dog on the loose or something?'
'Doesn't sound like it,' Mrs Holden replied with big eyes and a shudder of disgust. 'They think it was a person. Three ewes in the lambing sheds were attacked. Two killed outright and the other had ... Well her lambs had been cut out. Twins they were. One is as healthy as can be but the other was all mangled. They shot the ewe as soon as they found the poor thing.'
Mummy's jaw dropped. 'Oh my God!'
'I know! Farmer's had the police out, of course. Word in the village is to be careful if you're visiting any of the farms in the district as most of them'll have a man with a shotgun keeping an eye out.'
'Right. Of course.'
'You might want to have a word with your boys, seeing as they've a tendency to wander.'
The other women murmured and nodded in agreement. Mummy pretended to be grateful for the advice before striding to meet Sherlock for a hello cuddle and hastily taking him home.
As soon as Sherlock had been sent to bed, the fourteen year-old twins were called to sit at the dining table for a discussion with their parents. The boys knew it was very serious when their father didn't smile at them both.
Between them, Mummy and Daddy explained what had happened at Middleton Farm and watched carefully for the twins' reactions. Sherry simply raised his eyebrows as if to ask why he was required to listen but Mycroft had clenched his hands and grown positively green. He opened his mouth to speak and unexpectedly sobbed out loud.
'This c-c-can't go on!' he stammered at Sherry.
'What?' his twin asked calmly. 'What's the matter with you?'
'You've got to stop!'
'Mikey's right,' said Daddy. 'We've sat you down to tell you that no matter how tempting it might be, you must never, ever try to see the lambs at Middleton Farm. We're not stupid. We know you both like going off on your own at all hours - and that you've started taking Sherlock when you sneak out. But it's dangerous. Someone might accidentally shoot you!'
'Or you might bump into the lunatic who attacked those sheep.' Mummy added grimly. 'They are violent and they are very sick. Surprising someone like that would be incredibly risky. You know what happened to Redbeard.'
The dining room door flew open and thudded against the sideboard. Everyone sitting at the table winced at the noise.
'What happened to Redbeard?' Sherlock yelled, padding into the room with bare feet, pyjamas buttoned crookedly.
'Oh, for God's sake!' Daddy snapped. 'Why aren't you in bed?'
'I couldn't sleep. I could probably sense the secret conversation you're all having without me,' Sherlock snapped back mutinously. 'Tell me about Redbeard! I know when you're all lying so there's no point trying.'
Mummy touched her hair self-consciously and drew a breath. 'There!' Sherlock raged. 'That's one of your tells! And Daddy pretends to be stupid, and Mycroft straightens something, and Sherry is politer than usual. Don't TREAT ME LIKE AN IDIOT!'
'Something wounded Redbeard and he had to be put down,' Sherry explained. 'Daddy took him to the vet but he'd lost too much blood and he had hypothermia.'
Sherlock's hand flew to his mouth. He actually staggered backwards until Mummy reached out to gather him close. 'No!' he yelled. 'Get off me, you dirty great liar!'
Mummy held her hands up in appeasement and sat back down in her chair. 'Fine. Okay. I'm very, very sorry, Sherlock, but it was unpleasant and we didn't want to scare you.'
'And now someone - a man or a woman - has attacked some sheep. Cut one open like a Caesarian when it was still alive, and I don't know how you'd do that without drugging it first because sheep have four legs and run fast, and they probably did Redbeard too, and that cat I found hanging in the woods last month, and you're telling the twins to be careful but not bothering with me! It's hardly sensible.'
'What cat?' Mycroft asked as the rest of the family gaped at Sherlock.
'A ginger cat hanging from one of the little oaks. I dissected it and then buried it like Sherry showed me, obviously.'
'Oh, Jesus,' Daddy murmured.
'You see!' exclaimed Mycroft. 'I was trying to tell you!' Tears had begun to drip from the end of his nose, plashing silently onto the mahogany before him. He rubbed his face with both hands and swept an impatient shirtsleeve across the table.
'Shut up now, brother dear,' Sherry said, reaching to cover his brother's mouth.
'No!' Mycroft jerked away and shoved a hand out to repel any further contact. 'Those lambs. Twins!'
'Shut up, shut up! You useless, lazy lump of shit.'
'Sherrinford!' Mummy barked. 'Enough from you. Mycroft, how long have you known?'
'He's my twin, Mummy!'
'Of course, dear. Understood. Where's the evidence?'
'Darling?' Daddy queried helplessly.
'If there's anything to find, Mycroft knows about it. We'll deal with that first and then look at our options.'
'Don't argue, darling. Now is not the time for an argument.'
'There's only one sword in the greenhouse,' Mycroft said.
'I'll kill you,' Sherry threatened. 'I'll cut off your head.'
'No you won't. I won't let you. You used the other sword to stab Redbeard and then hid it in the woods. Under the log next to the rabbit snare you set when we were seven. It was still there before the snow came but it's too rotten to use nowadays.'
Sherry's face twisted into a snarl for the briefest of moments before settling into a winning smile. 'He's lying. He did it all, not me.'
'No he didn't,' Sherlock retorted. 'Mycroft hates getting dirty, and he hates blood and dead things too.'
'Fetch the sword,' Mummy told Daddy. 'Mycroft, can you describe exactly where it is?'
'It's easier to show the way but I don't think Daddy should leave you here.'
'I can go with Mummy,' Sherlock suggested. 'I know where you mean.'
'It's freezing and dark out there,' said Daddy, frowning. 'Sherlock, go to your room. Mycroft, get your boots and coat and take your mother. Sherry, you've got one chance to explain yourself to me.'
'I assume you have some idea about what we should do.' Mummy picked her way along the slushy footpath as Mycroft shone the torch for them both.
'I've been doing some research,' he admitted. 'There are a few places that could take Sherry right now. They'd keep him, and everyone else, safe.'
'What sort of places? Institutions?'
'Private ones. With nice grounds and therapy and plenty to do.'
'I'm not going to patronise you, Mikey. God knows you're already cleverer than most of us. Really and truly, now, is he that bad?'
Mycroft huffed a cloud of condensing water vapour into the torchlit air and sniffed miserably. 'He's a textbook psychopath. I can remember him chopping the heads off beetles when we were three. He started catching and killing mice when we were six. He lies to you all the time, sometimes for no reason at all. I haven't had any friends for years because he scares them off. He threatened to kill me for the four-hundred and fifty-eighth time today, and one day he'll have a weapon to hand and that'll be that.'
Mummy abruptly stopped walking, hand over her mouth in a manner heartbreakingly similar to Sherlock's earlier horror. 'Oh, my love, why didn't you say something?'
'He's my brother. My friend. Most of the time, he's so much fun, and I'm so used to avoiding him on bad days. Why didn't you notice?'
'Why, Mummy? How could you not have bloody noticed? You're supposed to be a genius but you're blind. You and Daddy! Do you know how hard I've been trying to protect Sherlock? He was so close to realising about Sherry. And of course he would have confronted him.'
'Mycroft, would he hurt your little brother?'
'Sherlock on a rant about truth and rules and Redbeard? Of course he would! He's steadily been getting more violent and now this has happened. We're running out of time.'
Mycroft was already taller than his mother, voice broken to a deepish tenor and face slowly growing accustomed to his weekly shave. He had his father's nose and some genetically beefed-up version of his mother's brain but he was her baby and he was more frightened than a person should ever have to be.
Innumerable potential futures and their comparative probabilities were already weaving their way through Mummy's mind, sorting themselves from the very bad (Sherry escapes to Middlestone, gets hold of a gun, shoots us all) to the best that could be expected (Sherry drugged into an amiable state and allowed home). If this was the state of her brain after less than an hour of knowing, she dreaded to think how entangled Mycroft's thoughts and feelings had become.
'Tell me about these places,' she said, resuming their journey through the dark.
'The best of all is actually in America. Those phone calls you keep shouting at me about aren't all because I've been on the computer.'
'I see. Whereabouts in America are we talking?'
'New York State. And there's a place in Oklahoma tailored to adults if required.'
For Sherlock Holmes's thirtieth birthday, his brother bought him a Heathrow:Oklahoma City return trip.
Sherrinford still looked exactly like his twin. Just as smugly milk-faced and receding-haired as Mycroft had been when he passed over the aeroplane tickets with a stern (and flatly ignored) warning not to take any cocaine onto the flight.
Both men also still wore near-identical clothing. The tailors might have been different but the fraternal choices of finely woven wool, white cotton and dark silk were truly disconcerting. Sherlock found himself wondering if his brothers chatted about fashion during their weekly phone calls.
'You've lost weight,' he commented, settling into a comfortable armchair and declining Sherrinford's offer of lukewarm coffee in a cardboard cup. 'In the last photo I saw, you were positively obese.'
I've been busy in the garden,' Sherrinford explained, gesturing towards the barred window. His accent remained steadfastly close to the Received Pronunciation of their shared childhood. It must have taken a lot of work and a colossal level of pretension to maintain.
'They let you play with actual garden tools?'
'When it's time to come inside, I have to leave all the bits and pieces in a bucket and then hold my hands out behind me for cuffing.'
'What happens if you run or fight?'
Sherrinford shrugged. 'Tranquilliser dart or a taser, they're not too fussy here.'
'How many times have they used it?'
'On me? Never!'
Sherlock propped his chin on praying hands and lifted his eyebrows. 'I'm genuinely surprised you haven't tried to kill anyone yet.'
'No point wasting the one chance I'll get on some gormless brute of a male nurse.'
'Didn't Mikey tell you? We had words. Years ago now. He told me he was in a position to have me disappeared if I managed to seriously hurt anyone - or if I ever got so bored it seemed preferable to die. I thought that was quite sweet of him.'
'Sometimes I dream of a great tornado that carries me out of this place and spits me out into the woods at home. Half the trees have been uprooted by the wind but I can still recognise everything. I run and fetch my sword and start to hunt.'
'You must have watched The Wizard of Oz a few too many times.'
'Mikey will know when I'm ready. He might even let me have a little fun before I go.'
'Ah, yes, the fabled link between identical twins.'
'Oh, it's no fable. He was injured quite recently, I think.'
Sherlock blinked. 'I have no idea.'
'When you get home, ask him how his ribs are feeling. Mine have been aching like crazy at nighttime.'
'Still haven't forgiven him?'
'So sentimental of you.'
Sherlock stretched his legs out and crossed his ankles. 'So cold-blooded of him. Arranging your institutionalisation, and talking our parents into agreeing with it, after a few messy experiments. What place does sentiment have in the world if one's own family is capable of that?'
Sherrinford laughed. 'Oh, dear brother, don't you remember? You were the one who gave the game away. In my dream, it's always you I'm hunting.'
'But Mycroft was trying to tell them too!'
'We would have worked something out if he wasn't so worried about you. Rightfully worried, I'll admit.'
Sherlock shifted uneasily in his chair. He became aware of his right hand, tapping out the fingering for Vivaldi's Spring movement. He'd always hated the piece. 'If you believe that, you really are bonkers.'
'Mikey watched you like a hawk when you were with me. He can't bear all the prickles and mud of the countryside but he always turned up when you and I were out and about. And Redbeard was his idea, of course.'
'I was after you, not the bloody dog. But Mikey wouldn't tell me where my sword was unless I promised not to hurt you. He stood in front of your bedroom door until I'd finished and gone back to bed. He said that slaying Redbeard with a pirate sword would be poetic but it was actually cold and boring and I very nearly got bitten. I stopped listening to him after that.'
Sherlock stood up. His pores yawned, cold sweat coating his back and tickling the bridge of his nose. 'It's been a pleasure,' he drawled before striding away.
In the (anonymous, corporate, beige, boring, boring, boring) hotel near the airport that Mycroft had booked for him, Sherlock set out a neat row of twelve individually wrapped U-100 fixed-needle insulin syringes on the desk in his room. He paired each one with a little alcohol swab until the desk looked as though a teenager had graffiti'd a row of exclamation marks across one edge.
He had a gram of allegedly good cocaine that he'd scored off the only other English person present in the hotel bar, a deeply tanned and visibly nervous lady who'd introduced herself as Martha Hudson before touching a delicate hand to her lips and adding that she 'probably shouldn't have told him that.'
Mrs Hudson was a sweetie with a husband she needed to be rid of and enough of a stash in her handbag that Sherlock had, for a brief moment, considered robbing her blind and making a dash for the nearest car hire place. However, her quandary was an interesting enough puzzle, and her price per gram low enough, to quell the instinct for the time being.
She sat on the end of Sherlock's bed, sipping the cataclysmically bad Lipton's tea that Americans tended to deem acceptable and eyeing Sherlock's paraphernalia with fascinated horror.
'Why on earth do you need all that?' she blustered. 'I thought people just sniffed it!'
'You haven't witnessed a lot of drug consumption?' Sherlock enquired, emptying the gram bag into a little glass sample pot.
'Oh no, dear, I just keep up with the paperwork. You know.'
A 2ml ampule of sterilised water was added to the jar. The white powder disappeared immediately. Sherlock held it up to the light, observed the lack of any cloudy residue and hummed approvingly. 'No I don't. Enlighten me.'
'Well, nothing's on the computer, so I keep two books. One has all the imports: where they're from, how much, who is meeting the delivery man and how much cash they're taking. Then it has a section for processing staff, facility rental, ingredients and packaging.'
'Mr Hudson says it's not ready for sale unless it's been cut up and packaged properly.'
'Cut? Cooked?' I'm not very good with the lingo.'
Sherlock smiled reassuringly. 'Not to worry. What about the second book?'
'That has the quantity sent out, who takes it and how much money they pay. The resale value is about five times the purchase price and most of our outgoings are wages. I suppose the profit margin is about 380%.'
Sherlock finished tying off his left arm and spat out the end of the length of bandage he was using. He flexed his hand. 'That's good.'
Mrs Hudson sipped her tea and pulled an unhappy face. 'It'd be a lot better if Frank didn't spend so much money on guns. I'm always telling him we don't need another grenade launcher but will he listen? No he won't. Typical man.'
Sherlock unwrapped a syringe, capped the needle with a little wedge of cigarette filter and considered dosage as she wittered on. Usually, he'd expect to do three bumps per quarter gram, one bump per hour. Each round would give a short but decent rush, an ignorable craving for more after five or ten minutes and at least forty-five minutes of decent thought. He shot downstream of the previous site each time, alternating arms until he ran out of coke. He never missed a vein and he never reused a needle. Track marks were an utterly unacceptable side-effect of clumsy technique in his considered opinion.
It was sensible to try a tiny bit first, just to check for purity, but it had been a horrible day and the hotel was very beige. He drew up 0.2ml of the cocaine solution and checked for bubbles.
'I'm sorry, could you repeat the bit about guns? I'm afraid my attention wandered,' he confessed, laying his hand on the desk and expertly locating the median cephalic vein on the inside of his elbow.
'Well really, Sherlock! Just typical!'
Insert needle, draw back, sight blood, untie, bang the shot, taste metal, pull out, reach for an antiseptic wipe, wait for the stomach cramps to pass (no eating before or during a session, Sherlock abhorred vomit). The roar of a great waterfall began to fill his senses. Victoria, Niagra, Dettifoss, Kaieteur, Iguazu, louder and louder until he had no choice but to pitch forward into the froth, giving himself over to the mercy of the speed and the power and the drop.
Sherlock slid out of his chair as suddenly as if his body had alchemically transmuted from gold into mercury. He began to convulse before his head even hit the floor.
'Oh dear,' said Mrs Hudson, reaching for the hotel phone to call for an ambulance. 'I did tell him it was Frank's good stuff.'
'I am very sorry, Mycroft.'
'I have been labouring under a misapprehension.'
'Do stop sounding like an Austen character. It's bloody pretentious.'
'Says the man who still owns a teddy bear called Sebastian. It doesn't even bear the merit of originality!'
Mycroft smiled. 'That's more like it. Are you ready to go?'
Sherlock snapped open the handle of his wheeled suitcase and stood to attention. Behind him, the lumbering roar of yet another Boeing 747 landing at Heathrow rattled the windows of the Terminal 2. 'Absolutely.'
'You'll stay at mine until you've found a place. Tomorrow, I'll take you over to New Scotland Yard to see a fellow I met recently. He helped me out of something of a tight spot.'
'How are the ribs?'
'Almost mended and definitely worth while. I've finally convinced my superiors that fieldwork truly isn't my forte.'
'You'll have taken over their jobs after six months in the office.'
Mycroft turned and began to walk towards the glass doors, beyond which a black Jaguar S-Type could be seen idling within the perimeter of the concrete bomb blast barrier, conspicuously undisturbed by any armed policemen. 'I think four months, brother dear.'
'I wish you wouldn't say that.'
'We are what we are, and it's a waste of time refusing to accept it.'
Sherlock quickened his pace, overtaking his brother and throwing over his shoulder, 'It appals me.'
'Nonsense,' Mycroft called. 'It's high time you stopped dithering over which of us you're most like and started being your own man.'
'Stop interfering in my life and I might be able to!'
'Stay clean for five minutes and I might be able to.'
Sherlock shouldered through the door and let it swing shut in his brother's face. Then he grimaced and pulled the door open again, acknowledging Mycroft's murmured thanks with a sharp nod.
'I'll meet your pet policeman,' he said, handing his suitcase over to the driver. 'But beyond that, you'll leave me be.'
'As much as is practical. But from time to time we might be in a position to help each other out.'
'Do you think?'
'Stranger things have happened.' Mycroft slid into the back of the car, rearranged his overcoat and directed his attention towards one of the new Blackberry mobile phones that had become so popular in government circles.
'I suppose they have,' Sherlock conceded, shutting his jet-lagged eyes and starting to mentally plot the most likely route to Mycroft's house. Redbeard the Irish setter wagged his tail and led the way.