Actions

Work Header

BBC Sherlock: A Whimsical Case

Chapter Text

Chapter 1

"There are two ways of spreading light:

to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it."

Edith Wharton

***888***

***888***

 

February 2019

Meet me? Baker St. - SH

Sherlock's text pleasantly surprised John. It had been phrased as a request and its timing could not have been better. John had nearly completed his early shift in the surgery and had only to finish up his paperwork before leaving. Normally, he would have headed home straightaway where his soon-to-be four-year-old Rosie and her childminder were expecting him, but Sherlock's text changed his plans—a case with Sherlock was important work, too. He rang Erika about his delay and then texted his friend: On my way.

Within short order John found himself in a place so familiar it was as though he had never left. The crackling fire warmed the sitting room and kept the February chill from frosting the large windows facing Baker Street. It was like old times: sharing a cuppa in the late afternoon, although so much had changed since those early days—tragic loss and familial obligations notwithstanding—requiring more effort on both their parts to arrange a tête-à-tête.

Now seated in the club chair across from Sherlock, John studied a hand-scripted note on stationery personalized with a coat of arms. "This's a new one," he remarked to his friend. "So, it's not a case for a member of the peerage, but a letter of introduction from one."

"About his son, Peter," Sherlock nodded.

"Not familiar with this family represented by mice and a domestic cat. And what does this motto say? As My Wimsey Takes Me? Who's this?" John asked as he handed the letter back.

"The Duke of Denver. Arms: sable three mice courant, argent: crest, a domestic cat crouched as to spring," Sherlock refolded the letter carefully, slid it into its cream-colored embossed envelope, and tucked it into his jacket's breast pocket. "An old friend of the family. Of Mycroft's, actually, from Oxford… You see," Sherlock raised his tea mug to his lips and sipped before resuming, "the Duke's second son, Peter, is the namesake of his great-grandfather, Lord Peter Wimsey who ascended to the dukedom in 1951 after the Duke passed...the Duke's son predeceased him—died, if I remember, over France in 1943—"

"—Wait, Sherlock," John stopped him with a shake of his head, plunking his mug down with a loud thud on the side table. "Not sure I'm following this…"

"Anyway, this letter…. It's a formality, really, because…well, I once solved a mystery for his son, this same Lord Peter Wimsey, when he was a lad of four."

The arch of John's brows—expressing his curiosity—encouraged Sherlock to continue. "Mycroft was at Balliol with Lord Paul Wimsey—now the Duke—but they both had more use for each other when they met again at Downing Street a few years later. The Peer and the Pear, I liked to call them, such was Mycroft's shape back then."

Sherlock brushed aside his irrelevant tangent with a wave of his hand. "I had gone to Mycroft to voice my complaint in person about an irritating report in the news. The course of an MI5 investigation—this was well before I launched my current career and could only follow such matters from the fringe—compelled me to warn them against disastrous errors they were making. That was when I encountered Denver with his son—Peter—distracted, near tears, and tugging urgently on his father's trouser knee, demanding both his father and my brother's attention.

"For the sake of propriety and political obligations, Mycroft feigned interest in the Duke's conversation with Peter as the child had become distraught—something to do with a kitten called Seneca, missing all day. My brief eavesdropping provided me the facts I needed. I gave them the solution, and after a quick call to the residence, the cat was rescued and little Lord Peter was eternally grateful to me." Sherlock selected an iced biscuit from the assortment in the nearby plate and crunched on one as he continued. "The grouse we enjoyed on Boxing Day, remember*? I receive it annually as a gift from the ducal estate in Yorkshire as a more tangible expression of his eternal gratitude."

"All for a pet!"

"For other services that needs must remain secret, Mycroft gets champagne…."

John chuckled and chewed thoughtfully on a scone. After a beat, he sighed, "So tell me. Where was the cat?"

"Well, cats are notorious for slinking off and curling up in tight places…." Sherlock glanced at John with a faraway smile. "I suggested they check the chest of drawers … which was where they found the thing and freed it before it suffocated…." After another bite of biscuit, Sherlock added. "An exotic pet…oh, maybe a snake or lizard, even a tarantula, would have been less trouble…. I told the young boy so, but he seemed quite attached to his cat."

"A happy ending, thanks to you."

"A lost 'pet' and a little boy desperate to find it," Sherlock muttered, noting the parallel to his own darker, more disturbing childhood surrounding the loss of Redbeard.

Observing Sherlock's pained expression, John re-directed the topic, "When was this … cat mystery solved?"

"Twenty-three years ago," Sherlock nodded and shook off the shadow of his regrets.

"So you were…?"

"Twenty-one… a fourth-year MChem …getting into serious trouble trying to find my purpose in life…"

"Things haven't changed much, have they?" John teased him with a twinkle in his eye.

"A bit. Now I have a friend who gets into trouble with me," Sherlock chuckled softly, crossing one long leg over the other, "and also gets me out of it, although on some days my purpose in life might still be a bit dubious…"

Like dust motes in the late afternoon sunshine, their mirth danced gently between them until Sherlock cleared his throat and dispersed the levity. "This note," he tapped his breast pocket, "has kindled my interest in meeting Wimsey again. I'm actually looking forward to it. And from what I've heard from unnamed circles—all right, from Mycroft—he's intelligent and athletic, quick witted, with a proven eye for detail; he had shown unexpected promise when recently he helped recover the Attenbury Emeralds."

"Yeah. I recall hearing something about that in the news. That was this fellow, then? Impressive," John agreed.

"Since receiving Denver's missive this morning, John, I've researched the son. There is potential there, despite his aristocratic lifestyle. Along with some frivolity the nobility are known for, he has a weakness for incunabula … books from the earliest stages of printing… before 1501... and is reputed to have an exceptional appetite for first editions. I'm told he has accrued quite a collection despite his youth, and, I understand, he has a predilection for investigative fiction. I've learnt he's been an avid follower of your blogs since the beginning."

"My blogs are not fiction—"

"—Well," Sherlock countered with a skewed grin, raising yet again their ongoing debate, "at best, they're romanticized fact…"

"Dry facts given a creative spin make more interesting stories for our readers," John grumbled. He leant back in his soft chair and sipped his tea, "and your future clients..."

Sherlock noted the sudden tetchiness in the tilt of John's head and abandoned the perpetually sensitive topic. "I asked you here …to…to …to share information that involves us. His Grace is suggesting that his son might benefit from 'apprenticing'—his word—with a preeminent detective…."

"Apprentice? Seriously? Since when do you take on apprentices—ever?"

"True. But, in this case, I'm…disposed to make an exception."

"Why?"

Sherlock took another sip before replying. "It's complicated. His Grace thought sleuthing would do his son good…It's the only thing he's shown any real interest in since his return to civilian life."

"Former military then?" John sensed where this was going.

"In The Rifles, First Battalion, rose in the ranks to Major. Later he was appointed an Intelligence Officer. Apparently a good one, knowledgeable in major world languages, steganography, and deciphering code…"

"Oh, I see a pattern developing here. Invalided soldier needing adventure...," John's stomach clenched. He grimaced at the fleeting thought that he could be replaced and then sighed in resignation, "…And perhaps your new recruit. Can't say I blame you. With Rosie and all, I know I haven't been able to—"

"—While it's true everyone can be replaced at some point, John," Sherlock interrupted, looking hard at his friend with his narrowed eyes, "your value to me cannot."

John darted a relieved look toward Sherlock and met the laser stare with nod of acknowledgement.

Assured that John understood him, Sherlock's expression softened. "I should add that Lord Peter is not as serious minded or driven by the science of deduction as I deem necessary for pursuing this as a career. According to his father, solving mysteries amuses him. It's why His Grace prefers his son to seek some formal guidance—actually our advice—if he is to begin this 'silly hobby' of investigation, as his father calls it, in earnest."

"Couldn't be much of a silly hobby if he is an experienced Intelligence Officer," John pondered, "But why you? Given what you've described, he's far more skilled than an apprentice. Why not work for Mycroft, as an attaché to the Foreign Office or MI6?"

"His….nerves," Sherlock paused and glanced down at the half-filled mug in his hands, "PTSD...correction, PTSS—Syndrome—makes him unsuitable." He raised his steady gaze to John's. "His tour was interrupted by traumatic injury, like another good man I know. He was ill for many months, and his recovery has been slow—sometimes he confuses time and place."

John gave a low whistle and grimaced in full sympathy. "Combat stress flashbacks! Poor bugger."

"To my mind, we could always use assistance battling the criminal classes. Besides, I think you and I can help set him right," Sherlock added softly, "because I know you have done that for me."

And you for me, John thought. A sad half-smile flickered as he gazed into his cup. "Sherlock, do you think it was you—that long-ago 'kitten case'—that inspired him to pursue investigation as a hobby?"

"Thought had occurred. Well, and what of it? Rather, I think your blogs of our exploits have been the deciding factor in earning his interest in us. Even so, whatever his motives for becoming an investigator, frivolous or not, I shall see him, and of course, hope you might join me."

"Just so happens," John brightened at the prospect, "my schedule can be massaged a bit. Erika's back from holiday, so maintaining Rosie's routine should be a tad easier to get sorted than it had been while she was away." He checked his watch, downed the rest of his tea, and rose from his chair, "I'd like to meet this Lord Peter Wimsey…sounds like an interesting guy."

"It's settled, then," Sherlock jumped up in delight. "Lord Peter Wimsey's flat, 110 Piccadilly, near Half Moon Street, tomorrow evening, say half seven?"

***888***


Author Notes:

*To read about the grouse and the Boxing Day meal, see my FF "The Schemer's Pit."

The missing cat story was borrowed from a BBC radio programme broadcast on 8 January 1954 as "A Tribute to Sherlock Holmes on the Occasion of his 100th Birthday" In this programme, "Lord Peter" is being interviewed and he recounts how Sherlock Holmes once saved his cat. The radio script was reprinted in Sayers on Holmes, but you can check it out if you search for "DLS does crack; or, The Young Lord Peter Consults Sherlock Holmes."

I am ever grateful to my FF friends englishtutor and scrub456 who keep encouraging me to write. However, I especially want to thank my Canon Expert-she doesn't want to be named-but who has shared her keen eye and wisdom about Holmes and Wimsey. She has given me confidence and insights to write this Wimsey crossover. I remain greatly indebted to her!

Chapter Text

 

110 Piccadilly

7.30 pm

"Oh, damn!" Lord Peter Wimsey exclaimed seconds after his valet had ushered in two guests.

Sherlock and John exchanged puzzled glances. Whatever had ignited the young lord's outburst had nothing to do with their appearance in the library of the posh, perfect and expensive second-floor flat, directly opposite the Green Park.

"Upsettin' news, Bunter," the slight-built man with blond hair and a long face addressed his manservant. "That was the Met….actually, Charles Parker…," Wimsey grimaced at his offending mobile before re-pocketing the device in his trousers. Swallowing the bitter news, he scarcely looked toward his guests. "He says…my dear friend Mary Christie…she's gone missin'!"

"Parker's a good detective," Bunter reassured. "Something's sure to turn up soon, my lord."

"I assume you're referring to Detective Inspector Charles Parker," Sherlock interjected. "I would agree with your man, Lord Peter. I've been told by reliable sources that Parker is one of the youngest to achieve this rank. But his rise from sergeant to DI since the recovery of Attenbury Emeralds is a testament to his hard work, shrewdness, and caution."

"Of course, you would know about him… and he you, Mr. Holmes…." Hearing Sherlock's endorsement, Lord Peter's somber expression brightened. He leveled a pair of twinkling grey eyes on his guests. "Look, Bunter! Can you believe it? Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson are in my library!"

Wimsey approached his guests with outstretched arms and a flustered, earnest openness. "Been looking forward to this!" He took turns shaking their hands and, before disengaging his athletic grip, beamed, "Chuffed to meet you, Doctor, and meetin' you again, Mr. Holmes. I'm a great fan of your work and adventures. If it wasn't so crass, I'd take a selfie." He snorted a soft laugh and flashed them a sheepish grin. "Please accept my apologies for a not-so-quite courteous greetin'. Under normal circumstance, I can be a gracious host." An affable smile appeared at last. "Somethin' to drink, gentlemen? The House of Denver produces a fine sherry and port from its small holdin's in Madeira… Bunter, shall we?" He gave his man an appreciative nod.

"Ah….yes… port for me," John licked his lips in anticipation of the rich and sweet flavors of the renowned vintage.

"And you, Mr. Holmes?" the young lord pressed while Bunter strode to the bar to prepare their drinks. With a distinct military attentiveness, Bunter remained poised, waiting for Sherlock's reply.

"Nothing for me," Sherlock dismissed the offer while observing the valet's readiness...so like John's…another former soldier? Bypassing further amenities, Sherlock, turned his full attention to Lord Peter. "What are the details of your missing friend?"

"You once helped me, Mr. Holmes, locate my dear Seneca when he was lost. This's much more disturbin'!" Lord Peter muttered, his eyes gloomy. "It seems that after kissin' her sleepin' daughter good night, Mary left her home. Didn't tell anyone where she was goin'. Her staff said she took only her purse and an attaché case and then she motored off in the night. The police have made inquiries among her family and friends. No one's heard from her since. It's been three days."

"Has she done anything like this before, Lord Peter?"

"No! This is highly irregular!" At a sudden realization, Wimsey shook his head. "Please have a seat," he gestured toward the two upholstered chairs and the leather Chesterfield sofa, furnishings that gave the library an older era's welcoming charm. Upon the mantle of an old-fashioned hearth, updated to accommodate the healthy yellow flame of the gas fire, Sèvres vases were filled with burgundy and white calla lilies. Rare editions in their mellow calf bindings lined the black-and-primrose walls while a black baby grand piano occupied one corner of the grandiose room.

Despite Lord Peter's invitation to sit, John hesitated—an ingrained army protocol in deference to rank had kicked in—but Sherlock showed no qualms and chose one of the upholstered chairs. Peter dropped heavily into the remaining soft chair and John settled for the middle cushion of the Chesterfield.

"What can I say about Mary?" Wimsey continued, closing his eyes in recollection. "A sister to me, she is, despite the fact that I have a biological sister with the same first name. Lady Mary and I don't see eye-to-eye regardin' her strong political leanin's…But I digress. Oh, Bunter!—" Lord Peter interrupted himself to address the valet who was about to leave after serving John's and Lord Wimsey's glasses of port. "I should prefer you to remain and listen, too." He waved Bunter to join them. "This may take a while. Perhaps you should take a seat."

Sherlock looked back-and-forth between the two men, curious about Wimsey's open friendliness if not outright affection for the taciturn Bunter. It was nothing sexual, clearly, yet undoubtedly genuine. And mutual. It confirmed Sherlock's first impression. Former military and given the ease between them, a long-standing acquaintance… Major Wimsey's batman cum wingman? Steadying influence and clearly protective. Doubtless has helped Lord Peter recover from as well as manage his PTSS…a comfortable working unit, the two of them.

"I'm fine here, my Lord," Bunter replied and stood respectfully beside Lord Peter's chair.

Sizing up his man, Peter chuckled, "Bunter likes me to know my place," he explained with a broad grin. "Terrorisin' sort of man, he is, with his impeccable manners, but he's indispensable to me in countless ways."

Neither a smile nor blink cracked the veneer of solemn dignity that composed Bunter's features, despite his lordship's praise.

"I shall ask you to begin right at the very beginning, if you please, my lord," Sherlock opened their discussion. "No detail is too trivial."

"A passion we share, Mr. Holmes," Wimsey said gravely.

Sherlock leant back in his chair with a nod of agreement, his eyes closed to better focus on the eager narrator's words.

"I first encountered Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller—she prefers Mary—when I was still a boy and she a wisp of a girl, though five years older. Despite the six-hour distance between our families' estates, our social circles often overlapped when she visited her step-grandmother and aunt's house in West London—Ealin', to be exact. She came from newly-acquired wealth, a middle-class family who traveled frequently. Her father was a stockbroker in the City. As I remember it, he advised many noble families in the management of their estates, ours among 'em.

"While our parents socialized, Mary and I found refuge from the tedium in the library or quiet salons where we indulged our appetite for readin'. Our friendship was founded on our fondness for the works of Poe, H. G. Wells, Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Asimov, le Carré, Frank Herbert, and of course, J.K. Rowlin'." Peter smiled at John. "In fact, it was Mary who alerted me to your blogs, Dr. Watson, when you first started postin' about your adventures with Mr. Holmes. Nearly a decade ago, isn't it now?"

"That's right, nine years," John replied, realizing the young Lord's chronology was accurate. It seemed as if he and Sherlock had been sharing adventures for far longer. John glanced at Sherlocknow sitting upright and forward, eyes on his host. Would Sherlock add a comment? But Sherlock's focus remained riveted on Lord Peter.

"Mary's path and mine diverged as we grew older," Lord Peter continued. "I went on to Eton and Oxford. Seein' no true usefulness for my history degree, I went into military serviceMary traveled in Egypt and the States for her education. We maintained our friendship despite that. We kept in touch through emails, mostly; ringin' up each other from different parts of the world was not always convenient. Of course, eight years ago, I attended her weddin' to Archibald. A splendid affair…. "

"And his full name is…?"

"—Colonel Archibald Christie,"

"Colonel?" John asked, intrigued.

"Yes, Royal Corps of Signals, by way of Woolwich," Wimsey told John.

While Wimsey's narrative was engaging despite its length, John expected Sherlock would have become snappish and demanded Lord Peter get to the point by now. Yet Sherlock held his peace. Was Sherlock showing courtesy in deference to Wimsey's position or because he was gleaning more about the young man through his tangential remarks? John decided the latter was the more likely explanation for Sherlock's silence and scrutiny.

Nor did Wimsey seem to mind his guest's laser stare. "That she would try her hand at writin' mystery novels," he continued amused at the idea, "is no surprise to me. You may've already heard of her. She uses her given name Agatha—?"

"—Oh!" John's eyes widened in recognition; he leant forward with excitement, "Yes! Agatha… Agatha Christie! We're both familiar with her works. Hercule Poirot! I've read many of her short stories and all three of her novels…" John didn't add that during their investigation of a burglary in a salvage warehouse*, Sherlock had imitated her Inspector Poirot to question the suspects, all in great fun.

"A fourth with Hercule Poirot is about to be published," Wimsey nodded with a proud smile. "She's a prolific storyteller… been receiving acclaim. Mark my words; her success is bound to be huge. Just three weeks ago she told me she had reviewed the galley prints on her latest mystery with her publisher. She was so excited….Ironically her new mystery novel is about a disappearance…."

Just that quickly, the pride Wimsey took in his friend's accomplishment faded, his expression clouded. "Poor Mary!" he mused. "Her private life has not been so… promisin'. After her mother's death, domestics between her and her serial philanderer husband had increased, bringin' her much grief, y'know. Insomnia, loss of appetite. She was increasin'ly unhappy. I despise the man. My last conversation with her several months back was that she should divorce him. Her successful publishin' career would sustain her and her seven-year-old Rosalind without the louse."

Lord Peter's eyes sparked with anger, "Mr. Holmes, I very much fear that her disappearance has something to do with her husband!"

"It's often the spouse who is the primary suspect in missing cases," Sherlock agreed, "but not exclusively. Tell me what Parker said about her car, Lord Peter. Her mobile? Her credit cards? Surely those would provide clues to her whereabouts. It's nearly impossible to vanish completely unless one is making a deliberate effort."

"That's what's so strange," Lord Peter's troubled look met Sherlock's puzzled expression. "The Met…well, Detective Parker told me that Mary's car was found abandoned near Guildford—on the edge of a chalk pit—the front wheels overhangin' the edge precariously. Her things—her mobile, her credit cards, coins, and personal ID, along with her purse—had spilled to the floor on the passenger's side of the car. To retrieve them the police had to be proceed with caution. Parker said only a thick hedge-growth prevented the car from plungin' into the pit."

"They've searched the area…the chalk pit below?" Sherlock inquired.

Wimsey nodded, fisted his hands, and looked away from Sherlock's intense scrutiny, "Still ongoin', but so far, nothin's turned up."

"Sounds like she made a hasty escape," John offered to allay Wimsey's evident concern, "in fear of toppling the car and left her things behind."

"You think so?" Peter glanced at John, his face brightening at the hopeful thought. "Still, it's perplexin'. Where would she go at that hour? And in the rain? Police made inquiries in the nearby homes and businesses. Showin'em photos, even usin' head shots from the book jackets." He shook his head, "no one's seen her."

"In absence of a body," Sherlock shrugged, "one may indeed find some solace. We might presume your friend has left by other means. Whether voluntarily or otherwise would be evident at the scene, except I fear the damage done by the investigation. The soggy weather reported in Surrey these last few days—exacerbated by the local constabulary crawling about in search of the missing woman—will have adulterated, if not completely obliterated, the essential footprints or tyre tracks that would render clues. Still, I'm curious …and tempted by the challenge—it's a mere hour each way—" Sherlock mused.

"Seriously, Sherlock?" John frowned, recognizing all too well the avid look in Sherlock's eyes. "You think you would be lucky enough to find anything… particularly now in the dark?"

"Lucky? It's never luck; it's methodical observation…" Sherlock blinked his eyes back in focus. "But you're right, John. There's no point in rushing at this late hour. I prefer the advantages daylight provides…." He tilted his head as if to dislodge a thought, "You say her personal effects were still in the car. What of her attaché case?"

"Damnation!" Lord Peter erupted and stood.

Unperturbed by Wimsey's outburst, Bunter stepped aside to allow his lordship the necessary room to pace the floor. Outwardly impassive; Bunter's eyes darkened with concern and followed Wimsey's movements, on watch for more.

...Nerves?…PTSD-S?…John wondered, alert to the signs of trauma he knew intimately, but Wimsey's outburst subsided.

Peter clutched his head in sad frustration and ran his fingers through his blond locks. "Shit for brains! Look at me! I failed to ask Parker that very question. It would have been a helpful one, too. I have much to learn, Mr. Holmes, haven't I—about conductin' an official investigation?"

"No time like the present," Sherlock agreed.

"So the attaché case is missing from the car?" John darted glances between Wimsey and Sherlock, unsure if he had missed something in their exchange, but it was Lord Peter who responded.

"Can't be certain. Let me ring Parker back. I'm sure he'd be honest with me…." Lord Peter pulled out his mobile and pressed redial, "Charlie, don't mean to be a pest, but I've been tryin' to wrap my head around Mary's sudden disappearance. Still a shocker! You said her cards and ID were found…along with her attaché case?"

Wimsey kept his steady gaze on Sherlock and John while listening. "No? Mary and her attaché case have both gone missin'. I see. No sign of it anywhere…not thrown from the car. Curious, indeed! Certainly, keep me posted. And better still, if I can be of any help…you know how to reach me."

Peter sighed when he had rung off. "I suspect her missin' case suggests she left the scene and took it with her. It couldn't walk off on its own, clearly. Is that what you make of it, Mr. Holmes?"

"Precisely. Upon that detail hinges the entire investigation," Sherlock replied. His scant smile as he leant back in his chair was smug with satisfaction at Wimsey's astuteness.

Lord Peter noted it and smiled in understanding. "How quick your clever mind works. I know Father has told you I've been taken to sleuthin' as a hobby, Mr. Holmes. Harmless outlet for my natural inquisitiveness, d' you see?" Wimsey flashed a disarming grin at his guests. "Better that than…strike inward and produce introspection…so they tell me," he admitted more softly in an aside directed at Bunter. "Sleuthin' seems a natural, healthy pursuit—not too strenuous, not too sedentary; trains and invigorates the mind. But I should feel a bit more…productive if I could focus a tad more…Distractin' thoughts sometimes run amuck since… my...return to civilian life."

"Ah, yes. Distractions are the bane of the ordered mind," Sherlock acknowledged. He had detected, however, much darker things beneath the young man's self-justification, dark enough for Sherlock to resolve to assist Wimsey in succeeding at his "sleuthing."

John raised his eyebrows at hearing an unexpected empathy in Sherlock's tone. Glimpses of a humanized Holmes still surprised him—pleasantly. He sipped port to cover his grin.

"They can be formidable obstacles and dangerous to the deductive reasoner," Sherlock paused; his eyes narrowed. Conceding something akin in Lord Peter Wimsey and himself, he decided to be forthright, "I know those struggles first-hand. Different from yours, but no less problematic. While the support of good friends keeps one from falling into company with the black dog," Sherlock glanced at John and momentarily inclined his head in acknowledgement, "and perhaps even makes one a better human being, our sort needs something more." His voice was matter-of-fact in including Wimsey. "Our brains are like rockets ready to launch."

…like an engine, racing out of control. A rocket, tearing itself to pieces trapped on the launch pad…, John recalled Sherlock's heated howl from long ago.

"As your father requested you seek my counsel," Sherlock paused, the steely glint in his eyes softening, "I believe I can be of some assistance, my lord. There are techniques I've developed over the years; methods to clear the mind of detritus and distracting… emotions. These techniques provide the focus required both to see and observe details in facial expressions, in trifles and minutiae that others frequently miss. Learning to separate the critical from the inconsequential in people, scenes, and situations takes practice. Those who master them succeed in seeing things more as they are, in ascertaining facts, allowing them to deduce accurately from them what has occurred."

"You see, Bunter," Wimsey's wide and grateful smile spoke volumes, his enthusiasm contagious. "This clear sight is what I have always admired! We would be ridiculously indebted to you, Mr. Holmes, for your assistance—?"

Before Lord Peter could finish, Sherlock and John exchanged looks to confirm their mutual sentiments. "—We accept!" Sherlock declared. He slapped his hands on the chair arms and stood to leave. John rose, as well. "We must find your friend straightaway, Lord Peter. John and I should head back to Baker Street. A robust search is required and the laptop is far better than my mobile for such a task…."

"—Hardly a problem, Mr. Holmes! Quick, Bunter," Wimsey cut Sherlock short, "fetch mine!"

Bunter's alacrity was impressive. He bounded to a mahogany escritoire at the other end of the library to retrieve Wimsey's laptop. Seconds later, it was in Sherlock's hands.

"Thank you, Bunter," Peter grinned at his man. "We're in for a treat, you realize. One of the nation's most masterful minds is applyin' itself to Mary's disappearance."

A subtle uptick in Sherlock's cheek at Wimsey's praise was his sole reaction. He sat back down in the chair and logged on with the necessary permissions. "Your honed skills as Intelligence Officer, Lord Peter, will come in handy." He waited until the young lord and John were leaning on the chair back to watch over his shoulder before opening the browser and pulling up satellite maps and weather reports. "I suspect it will be a matter of triangulating her whereabouts from the site of the car crash. We'll have to confirm that no other vehicle was involved to whisk her away, but within this radius," Sherlock's index finger described a circle around the site of the crash location on the map, "a person traveling by foot has limitations. We may find some answers sooner than not."

"I've no doubt…," Lord Peter cried in excitement as he watched his illustrious guest, "this will be stimulatin'!"

John smiled in open admiration as Sherlock's fingers flew across the keyboard. "Yes, my lord, it always is…" he said softly and downed the remainder of his port.

**88**


Reference to my casefic: "04 BBC Sherlock: The Case of the FLAT-OUT Adventure"

Chapter Text

88**88

110 Piccadilly

10.20 p.m.

Mervyn Bunter had just helped Sherlock with his coat when Lord Peter Wimsey's mobile rang again.

"It's Parker!" Peter pulled a worried face and apologized, "'Fraid I should take it…"

"Of course," John said, thrusting his arms through the sleeves of his jacket that Bunter was holding up for him. "We shouldn't have overstayed…."

The invigorating topic of the evening had made it hard to break away, but when the valet had entered with their coats, John snapped to attention. Catching Sherlock's eye, he discreetly signaled his friend to log off Wimsey's laptop. Despite Peter's vitality and enthusiasm, it was obvious Bunter oversaw the recovery of his lordship's mental state with a careful and caring eye—it was time for them to go—except, the jaunty trill of the host's mobile halted their departure.

As Peter listened to Parker, Sherlock froze in place, also intent upon listening to the detective inspector's end of the conversation. He ignored John's tugs on his coat sleeve.

"Sher-lock," John whispered, "it's quite late…"

"—Hold on!" Lord Peter said both into the phone and to his guests. "Charles, wait, listen here…a coincidence you'd appreciate. Tonight I've been entertainin' no other than Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson." He gave Sherlock and John a complicit wink. "All evenin' we've been exchangin' theories…about where Mary might have gone. Any breach of confidentiality or protocol if I include 'em in this conversation now?"

"Huh! This is what you might call unexpected," The DI muttered his surprise and paused, "and a stroke of luck. Leave it to you, Peter, to have the right connections."

"Well?" Peter plied him anxiously.

"Certainly nothing confidential. Fact is, there's no new evidence, sorry to say… so I don't see why not—"

Wimsey did not wait for the DI to finish. He switched his mobile to speaker and propped it against the laptop where Sherlock had left it on the side table. Sitting down, he motioned Sherlock and John to come in closer to the upholstered chair. "I've got you on speaker! What's up?"

Scotland Yard's newest Detective Inspector, Charles Parker, wasted no time. "I was ringing to let you know I've been assigned lead on this investigation. The local police admit they're out of their element, not for want of trying. After three days of searching and failure, they're under pressure to produce…something." The DI sighed. "Of course they expect me to tap into Met resources, but the condition of the incident scene is frightful even if it hadn't been raining. They've literally trampled over vital evidence and turned everything to mud."

"We surmised as much," Lord Peter began sympathetically. "Don't suppose you'd welcome…um, some outside help, 'specially if such help expressed eagerness to lend assistance…?" During the expectant pause, he flashed a Cheshire grin at Sherlock and John.

Parker was quick in his reply, "Y'know, Peter, I'm not too proud to welcome the insights of your illustrious guests. Your reputations precede you, gentlemen. Greg Lestrade calls you an invaluable Met resource, one I wouldn't mind tapping into now, I'll confess."

John and Sherlock flicked matching half-smiles at each other, but didn't interrupt Parker.

"And if an impressive young aristocrat I know quite well is also offering his help, I will not refuse," Parker concluded.

"All parties are noddin' in agreement!" Peter declared with enthusiasm, sharing grins with Sherlock and John, "but, Charles, I can hear in your voice, 'trampled evidence' is not your only headache—."

"Quite. Because they wanted to rule out suicide, they've spent precious time dredging a pond close by, called The Silent Pool; according to local legend it's bottomless."

"You don't think...?" Wimsey paled, his hand clutched his throat in dismay.

"I don't. It's rubbish. There's no real evidence she or anyone headed that way in recent weeks. The local police are grasping at straws. However, with vicious rumors now stirring the bloody pot, I do have to wonder about her state of mind." His frustration audible, Parker set forth the details. "Mary's disappearance—or Agatha as she is known by her adoring readership—has taken the media by storm. Conspiracy theories have gone viral. Someone described this whole situation as 'a tsunami of wild speculation,' and I have to agree. Of course, her husband remains the media's prime suspect."

"Can't say I blame them!" Peter retorted, "My gut is screamin' he's behind it. I don't know how but I can feel it. Said so earlier this evenin'."

"Look, Peter. I know you have close personal ties with Mary and may have been more apprised of what was happening on the domestic front, more than you want to let on," Parker leveled, "but according to the house staff, the colonel and Mary had a cataclysmic row the evening she disappeared. Christie was heard shouting at the top of his lungs about wanting a divorce. 'In love with another woman.' Mary's PA had the misfortune of arriving during the height of the domestic. She was dropping off an attaché case—the same one Mary later took with her in the car and is missing now—containing documents Mary needed to sign for the publisher. The PA swears she distinctly heard the name Nancy Neele. So did the nanny. The couple's argument ended abruptly when the colonel stormed out. He rushed by the PA on his way out the door."

"Dreadful this… Poor Mary! Of course I didn't know about that blow up!" Lord Peter shook his head;a lock of straw-colored hair fell across his brow. "Even so, Mary is strong willed. Her husband's indiscretions would have made her angry, not suicidal. I'd swear to that!"

"To add to the confusion that night," Parker continued, "when Mary finally opened the attaché case, the PA had discovered the contents belonged to someone else. There had been a mix-up. By then, it had begun to drizzle and the hour was late. Everyone's nerves were frayed, but Mary insisted she'd take it back herself the next day to the publisher and sent her PA home. The nanny said an hour or so later, despite the driving rain, Mary left, too."

"Raincoat…umbrella…footgear?" Sherlock queried. "Had Mary taken anything to protect herself from the weather?"

"The housekeeper said Mary grabbed her hooded rain jacket when she dashed off, "Parker replied. "Later she noticed Mary's wellies were still in the hall closet. Apparently she had left them behind in her haste. But not the colonel. He had the foresight to take his boots when he had left earlier that evening."

"Beastly," Peter wrung his hands and shook his head. "Mary had hopes the marriage would survive his occasional 'side interests,' especially after Rosalind was born. Rumors would crop up every now and then. If they were true or just old news that wouldn't die, Mary took the higher road and chose to ignore them." Wimsey leant back in his chair, apparently not surprised by Parker's revelation, "Well, the truth will out! So it was Nancy; Mary suspected there was something not quite right…"

"She knew about them, then?" John pulled back in surprise and glanced at Sherlock.

Sherlock had steepled his fingers under his chin, his subconscious but characteristic pose usually meant he was sorting out the pieces of the puzzle in his head. They had spent the evening mapping out the possible locations a woman could flee on foot. Sherlock had even demonstrated hacking into guests lists at several local B&Bs, until Wimsey offered to ring these establishments with inquiries about their guests the next morning. Whatever Sherlock had heard now triggered him. His sudden impassive expression was confirmation that these facts were extremely significant, if not the motive behind the mystery.

"Not sure if she knew about Archie with Nancy," Peter pulled his chin in thought, "but it would seem her instincts were right about Nancy

"What can you tell us about Nancy Neele?" Sherlock asked with complete calm, though John noticed the gleam in his eyes.

"… Let's see. A model. Don't believe she was ever in the fashion industry." Wimsey wrinkled his brow, "Not stunning enough ….Actually, her sister Terese, an in-house production editor, brought up her name when the art department was lookin' for Tuppence, one of Mary's characters. Mary was lukewarm, but Archie was gung ho. So, Nancy was chosen to model for the book jacket… In my recollection, the artist's version was a tad more flatterin' than the original."

"The Secret Adversary. Tommy and Tuppence!" John's eyes lit in recognition.

"Rollickin' good fun and a ridiculously clever second novel, y' think?" Wimsey gave John an appreciative grin before continuing, "When Mary and Archie would come to town, they'd frequently dine with the publisher and his team. Nancy was always there but Mary suspected it wasn't on Terese's behalf …Mary once told me she suspected the publisher had a thing for the Neele woman.…" Peter's face fell, his voice along with it. "Seems she was invited at the colonel's request." Peter shook his head, "The colonel is behind her disappearance, albeit, indirectly."

"Well, he's getting his comeuppance of sorts," DI Parker huffed. "Have you seen the telly, Peter? Tonight's news? With Christie's wife still missing, the philandering husband's infamy is skyrocketing, fueled by reports how he conducted his illicit affair in public. Months ago, the two of them had been seen playing rounds on an exclusive golf course. Their flirting flaunted their lover status, this, according to witnesses. Since his wife's disappearance, reporters have been accosting the colonel in public, shoving microphones under his nose whenever he leaves his London townhouse, and loudly challenging his innocence."

"Undoubtedly, they want to goad him into confessin'," Peter muttered, "but more often than not, they'll only rankle 'im."

"More complications, this!" There was greater irritation in Parker's tone than present before. "Of course there are those who like to blame the victim. I know you want the truth, Peter, both the good and the bad… Critics of Mrs. Christie believe her disappearance is a publicity stunt to promote the Agatha Christie brand, as well as her latest novel…about a disappearance."

"Preposterous!" Lord Peter shouted at the mobile. "Mary's not a drama queen. She lets her characters be dramatic for her."

"Preposterous?" The voice in the phone shouted back. "You haven't heard the best, then. There's even been talk of alien abductions," Parker's annoyance was clear despite his chuckle. "Idiots will stop at nothing to fan the frenzy."

"—Idiots will stop," Sherlock interrupted, "when we uncover the truth—tomorrow."

Chills pulsed down John's spine. Had he heard it right—that familiar, decisive tone when Sherlock Holmes had an epiphany about a case?

"You think?" Peter gasped in surprise.

"No. I know," Sherlock replied. His self-assurance was tinged with his old arrogance. "Lord Peter, Detective Inspector Parker, we must first return to the scene without wasting another day. It will afford me an opportunity to examine what occurred for myself."

"Well, I can arrange that, Mr. Holmes," the DI answered cautiously, "if you really believe there's anything to glean. What time, would you say?"

"Hmmm. Daybreak would be ideal." The need to visit the scene was paramount and Sherlock wanted no delay in ascertaining whether firsthand—unadulterated—evidence might have been overlooked.

"Right. We'll make it 07.00. Bye for now, Peter, gentlemen," Charles Parker finished and rang off.

Sherlock's snap decisions unsettled John. Daybreak was hardly ideal for a single father who relied on a child minder. While accustomed to Sherlock's decisiveness about cases when they were apart—especially as John had "got on" with his life years ago—when collaborating, as they had this evening with Lord Peter, John expected Sherlock to seek his input. When setting the time, Sherlock had not even looked John's way.

"Oh, well done, all round!" Wimsey leapt up with genuine eagerness and pocketed his mobile. "Bunter will bring round the car, first thing. We'll collect you and motor down, if you're so inclined?"

"Agreed," Sherlock' voice sounded distant, his eyes had a faraway look.

John fidgeted and hitched a breath. Sherlock's automatic acceptance of Wimsey's offer didn't surprise John so much as leave him feeling slighted…and envious. He wondered if the freedom Sherlock enjoyed ever occurred to him or if it was all taken as his due. At a moment's notice, he could whisk off on an adventure, without family obligations holding him back or thoughts about whom the git was leaving behind...again. In the next instant, John grimaced at his pettiness. Shamed by his self-pity, he bit his lower lip.

"A real mystery to solve," Lord Peter enthused, spellbound by the possibility. "A trail to follow, steps to trace…I'm chuffed to bits!"

Sherlock rubbed his hands together, pleased by the prospects he was envisioning. "Always up for a challenge," he murmured to himself, "This promises to be a worthy test of my skills!"

"Let's not forget, a woman is missing?" John cautioned. He was frustrated with the constraints that would prevent him from joining them and his voice was sharper than he had intended; even so, that both Lord Peter and Sherlock seemed to have missed the point for their involvement, surprised him. It was not a game.

Sherlock heard John's tetchiness and shot him a laser look. Avoiding eye contact, John dropped his gaze to his feet and kept silent.

"And this missin' woman is my friend!" Lord Peter's delight curdled with the reminder. "How like me to see this as sport, a game to be won, rather than a hardship for the people involved. Yes, it's true. Mary might be hurt or hurting emotionally, at the least. There's no sport in that. Thank you, Dr. Watson, for settin' us right —."

"My blogger doubles as my conscience," Sherlock acknowledged, "but as my friend, he tells me what I need to hear. And when he says nothing, his silence speaks volumes."

John flushed both at the undeserved praise and his own selfish thoughts of moments before. Envy of Sherlock's autonomy was idiocy. Sherlock had long since chosen logic over love, isolation over socialization, and freedom over family at great personal cost. And while those rigid lines had flexed with time, thanks to Sherlock's emotional progress and John's companionship, Sherlock still spurned any entanglements that could compromise his commitment to reason and his freedom to pursue his outré interests.

Compared to the austere sacrifices that defined Sherlock's life and livelihood, John had nothing to envy. He had it all, a comfortable life enriched by the love of his daughter and dearest friends, colleagues who shared his interests, along with social circles through which he relaxed. And those times, when the urge for adventure called him, he had Sherlock—his best friend—leading the way.

John sheepishly returned Sherlock's gaze, knowing Sherlock saw through him. Yet, somehow, his observant friend—just as Mary had—preferred to see the good in him. Or maybe it was simpler. They overlooked his human foibles to focus on his other attributes: his camaraderie, his stamina under duress, his allegiance to duty and honor, and when required of him, his reliable uppercut.

"Lord Peter," Sherlock turned once more to their host. "I've agreed to your plans because after our discussion, I've made this case my priority. John, on the other hand, has priorities that supersede sleuthing for enjoyment or as work. So, whenever John offers his time, it's a commodity of great value to me."

Sherlock did not elaborate further. John's parental responsibilities as well as duty to his patients in the surgery often precluded his participation in investigations. But tonight, John's appetite for adventure had been whetted by their evening discussion. Sherlock detected in John's body language his friend's not-so-subtle disappointment at being excluded from the early-morning sojourn to Guilford.

Except John couldn't have known that Sherlock intended to include him…. "It goes without saying, John," Sherlock paused and narrowed his eyes as he reconsidered how to address his friend. "Correction, it bears repeating, John, if you can spare the time, there is some information gathering pertinent to this case right here in London that needs doing. If you're interested, I'll explain in detail in the cab ride back…."

"Okay, sure," John cleared his throat and his disappointment from moments before at the same time. Pretending nonchalance, he veiled his amazement at the perspicacity and finesse of this ever-evolving Sherlock.

"It's settled, then. Lord Peter." Sherlock bid Lord Peter good-bye with a brief nod. He knotted his scarf and flipped up his coat collar. "Shall we go, John? It's late."

Bunter showed them out.

88**88

Chapter Text

88**88

 

10.39 p.m.

 

"What do you think?" Sherlock's question broke his silence. He had not said a word after they had hailed the cab to John's home in the suburbs.

"Huh?" John looked up in surprise. The flicker of London night life as they motored through the city silhouetted Sherlock's profile. Having anticipated Sherlock's silent treatment for the duration of the ride, he had hoped to get some kip after he finished texting his child minder with his ETA—twenty-two minutes in light traffic. "About Lord Peter, you mean?"

"About everything," Sherlock stared straight ahead. "Start with Wimsey."

John looked out the window as he considered the question. "Well, okay, yeah, he seems a bit self-absorbed in a charming sort of way. Moody, too."

"That's it?"

John rubbed the weariness from his eyes. "Do we have to do this now? I'm absolutely knackered."

"Nevermind." Sherlock closed his eyes and folded his arms. The disappointment in his voice irritated John.

"Well, if you must know," John indulged, "I liked him. He is clever. He's got a quick mind. It was interesting to watch the two of you together. A tennis match. The volley of possibilities and probabilities to determine the logistics of a woman wandering the area on a rainy night and the likelihood of her having assistance… well, that was remarkable."

"Until I obtain proof, however, that was all speculative." Sherlock opened his eyes and met John's glance.

John caught Sherlock's frustrated expression before the lights of Central London winked past, leaving them both in shadow. "Well you convinced me. Mary…um, Agatha Christie walked away from the car. So, she was alive. You'll have the proof tomorrow. You said so yourself."

"Tell me more about Wimsey," Sherlock's vacant voice indicated he was entering remote rooms within his Mind Palace.

"More? Really? Right now you sound like you'd rather I'd shut up or had taken a separate cab."

"Don't be absurd, John!" Sherlock snapped. "I'd have told you so at the onset. Your background chatter is white noise. It helps me think. It's proving useful or there'd be no purpose for me to ride out with you and then back to Baker Street. So, go on. Continue with your observations, I'm multitasking…"

"You do know that's not actually possible for humans?" John blinked innocently, feeling more than seeing Sherlock's annoyed scowl, before giving a disgruntled chuckle. "White noise to help you think, is it?" he muttered, licking the grin on his lips. "When you put it that way, how can I refuse?"

Sherlock didn't answerJohn's wry smile evaporated and he grew serious, "Well, I do have one last thing. I got the feeling that Lord Peter was trying too hard to be witty, like it's a façade."

Sherlock shook free from his reverie and smirked, "Self-absorbed. Charming. Moody. Clever. A quick mind. Trying too hard …, a man with a façade…. And still you instantly liked him. Sound familiar, John?"

"Maybe," John grinned and darted a glance toward window at the passing traffic. "Although charming is a new one."

"Quite," Sherlock nodded and looked out his window.

John thought he heard a soft snicker.

After a long pause, Sherlock spoke more somberly. "I agree with you, John. Wimsey's a dilettante; he dabbles: books from the earliest days of printing, fine wines, male fashion, music. Whatever he chooses to do, he does well—the sheet music on the piano was Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, a most technically challenging composition—but these amusements can only keep him distracted for so long. His frivolity is obfuscating, a ploy—"

" —to hide his … his PTSS. Wartime experiences affect everyone differently, but I know the danger signs when a veteran is having thoughts of…." John looked down at his hands, unable to continue. He was remembering his own private war with desolation and self-destructive tendencies—manifested through his sarcasm and self-deprecation. He had been lucky to find purpose again, something that gave him a reason to get up, to keep moving, to keep looking forward. Yet, sleuthing with Sherlock was more than just a promise of adventures for him; it was the friendship that had saved him. Wimsey clearly needed a similar focus—or anchor—now.

"—thoughts of suicide," Sherlock replied softly, finishing John's thoughts, "Again, I concur, John. I caught the subtext in his words 'Better that than …strike inward and produce introspection…so they tell me.' This sentiment was supported by the dark look that passed been him and Bunter. Remember, the Duke encouraged Lord Peter to meet us, to give him purpose and focus? I'm certain we're up to this task. His clever mind does need more. Criminology and stimulating adventures may prove valuable to him. And I have it on good authority that solving mysteries appears to work for certain, adventurous army-types."

"Now, Bunter's another story," John redirected the topic from suicide. "No mere valet. He's protective and vigilant. Good thing, too. Getting over PTSS can take a lifetime. Wimsey's obviously still a bit fragile, emotionally—can't have been invalided out for very long—though he appears in great health otherwise."

"Appears, yes," Sherlock mused. "Curious man, Bunter. I suspect you're right. Has the bearing of former military, definitely some connection there, along with his qualities as manservant. He's loyal and committed to his role in service. Vigilant, as you said. Yet, the fact that Wimsey breaches the class distinctions by including him in his conversations indicates how much he values the man's friendship. Lord Peter's in good hands, I think," Sherlock grunted in satisfaction, "Next topic. What about Agatha Christie?"

"There's more there than meets the eye," John noted absently, his attention on the passing landmarks of Greater London bringing him closer to home and his warm bed.

"You're stating the obvious, John. It wouldn't have any intrigue if that were not the case."

"Well, what I mean is that 'disappearing' is hard to do these days, what with surveillance and electronic eavesdropping. Even if she didn't have her credit cards or mobile, how can she have gone off the grid so completely? Somewhere she'd be required to present ID, unless of course she's had accomplices among friends or family who helped her disappear—which the police have ruled out. Ordinary people don't have bolt holes, so it's unlikely she's gone to one. With all the media coverage, why has no one reported seeing her?"

"All good questions, John," Sherlock agreed, "which is why I need you to learn what was in the attaché case. Ring the publisher tomorrow, talk to her PA. I'm convinced the briefcase contained the elements of an alternate identity. Earlier this evening, using Wimsey's laptop, I accessed the real-time, guest-registration servers of the local B&Bs—"

"—Accessed? More like hacked," John snorted, "breaching firewalls to show off your tech-savvy skills to Lord Peter!"

"—it proved a fortunate demonstration," Sherlock ignored John's ribbing. "And it helped me connect the dots to the essential details about the case which Parker reported afterwards. If what I suspect is true concerning her current whereabouts, Mrs. Christie is nearby… not far from the spot where her missing car was found. I'm nearly certain of the name she has assumed. Getting confirmation is always the best course, however."

"What? You know the name and the location, then? Why not swoop in immediately for the grand reveal, which you so love to do?"

The dead silence that followed had John regretting taking the piss out of Sherlock, wondering if his teasing had gone too far.

Moments later, Sherlock's reply was subdued, "A fair question, John. It was tempting, but such swift action on my part would be both rash and unwise. I believe there are mixed motives here which bespeak a confused mind."

John was impressed. Not only was Sherlock resisting the lure of grandstanding to showcase his cleverness, he was demonstrating sensitivity for what the missing woman might be going through.

"Reprisal and retaliation could be attributed to her reasons for disappearing," Sherlock continued, "but a clever woman, whom she is reputed to be, would have demonstrated more forethought to accomplish this. A mystery writer of her caliber is shrewd and thoughtful or she'd not have achieved such literary success. That's why this disappearance is…" Sherlock frowned his discomfort with the scenario, "wrong, out of character. There's a haphazardness about her actions, a whimsical impulsivity that makes her behavior seems irrational."

"A woman scorned?" John shrugged. "Fury making her unreasonable, perhaps…?"

"John," Sherlock sighed, "you're subscribing to myths. Women, furious or otherwise, can be as calculating and devious as men. Gender doesn't preclude intelligence as the many remarkable women of our acquaintance can attest."

"Of course!" John's thoughts flew first to his extraordinary wife whom he missed daily, sometimes hourly, and to Molly Hooper, the exceptional forensic specialist they relied on, to the perceptive Mrs. Hudson, a woman whom both men had underestimated for so long.

"Running off to another county, country or continent would've made more of a point to her unfaithful husband. To do this," Sherlock emphasized to make his meaning clear, "would have required proper ID, John, resources, planning; Mrs. Christie would have needed the contents of her purse. And while your suggestion that it was too dangerous to retrieve those items from the car—your rational explanation, John, was effective in calming Lord Peter—it's often true that desperate and emotional people would take such risks. Yet, Mrs. Christie didn't try, not because she realized the danger she was in, but more as if she forgot she would need those items. You see the contradictions?"

"Confused… desperate…emotional, contradictory behavior," John mulled Sherlock's key points. "What did Wimsey say tonight? She was suffering from 'insomnia, loss of appetite, that she was increasingly unhappy.' Attempted suicide is still a possibility, then?"

"That's where I must rely on your experiences, John, as to her state of mind."

John swallowed hard, "…my experiences?" His affronted tone was an immediate give-away.

"I mean expertise," Sherlock cringed inwardly, hearing his thoughtless words as his friend must have heard them.

They had never discussed why John had not surrendered his Army sidearm when he retired from service. Sherlock had deduced over his years of friendship with John that there had been demons the invalided soldier had battled alone. Facing down his SIG-Sauer—the same service weapon John had used later against Jeff Hope to save Sherlock's life—perhaps had been one of them. The demons returned after Mary's death. John might have acted rashly during that traumatic time if not for Rosie. And now, their discussion of suicide, juxtaposed with Sherlock's injudicious phrasing "your experiences," had been more than clumsy. It had been hurtful.

"I'm referring to your connections to medical colleagues who can advise us if Mrs. Christie is suffering from some organic or psychological condition."

"Right," John's voice was hoarse and low.

It was hard to see in the shadows. Beams of light from the oncoming traffic were intermittent and offered little illumination for reading John's face. Sherlock listened intently, instead. All he heard was the rhythm of the cab's tyres on the road. His friend's silence weighed on him. Impatience mingled with concern. Sherlock wondered if he should essay amends. "John," he began when he had waited long enough, "If I have overstepped in suggesting…"

"Thinking!" John shushed,

Sherlock pulled back, startled by the precise mimicry of his own voice from John's lips.

"Shut up! I'm going over the ICD's diagnostic terms...Aha! I think I've got it!" John crowed a moment later. "If this is a psychogenic fugue state, it could explain things. That's where you're going with this, right?—mental confusion brought on by emotional and maybe physical trauma? We could be looking at dissociative behavior following her accident—a condition which I have personally encountered among fellow patients in the veterans' hospitals. You're right, you know, about my experiences. And I know just the psychiatrist to tap, too. Ex-army. I might persuade her to join us." John's brow furrowed, "…and um, Sherlock, if this is the situation with Agatha Christie, she shouldn't be confronted before we can determine her mental state."

"Agreed!" Sherlock nodded. "Then we have a plan!"

"We do," Satisfied, John checked his watch and yawned. "Good! Ten minutes left. As a resident at Bart's, this was still enough for a kip!" He curled into himself in a corner of the cab and within a minute his breathing grew regular with sleep.

Sherlock deferred sinking into his Mind Palace and studied his exhausted friend. A passing car's headlamps briefly illuminated the sleeping man's scant smile, a smile Sherlock mirrored.

**88**

88**88

Chapter Text

88**88

Newlands Corner in Guildford

6.30 a.m.

Three men waited in the cold. Above them, dawn washed the clouds in pale oranges and golds. Around them, ambient sounds drifted from the sloping hills and distant woodland veiled in pearl-gray mist. Despite the natural beauty, the winter greenery did not distract Sherlock from his single-minded purpose—to procure firsthand evidence, however scant, at the site of the abandoned car.

Bundled in warm outerwear and scarves, Sherlock, Lord Peter, and Bunter stood in the road at Newlands Corner in Guildford alongside Lord Peter's parked Mercedes. Until the officials arrived to let them through, they had been asked to remain outside the neon yellow tape that cordoned off the site from the curious. The warning Police-Line-Do-Not-Cross was powerless against pairs of sharp eyes combing the scene as the sun crested over the horizon.

Balloon lights stood around the perimeter of the incident scene. They had been powered off, signaling that the official inspection was ended and those lights were slated for removal when the police returned.

Mary's BMW 5-door Sports Hatch—the crux of her disappearance—had been towed to police impound for forensic examination. Even without it being there, Lord Peter easily ascertained by the broken branches and the muddy tracks of tyres and boots where the car had been partly submerged in bushes.

Taking advantage of their enforced wait, Sherlock crouched to examine the trampled ground along the roadside. He had slung his evidence-collection kit over his shoulder, enabling him to hold a sample kit in one hand, his torch between his teeth, and his magnifying lens at his eye as he beamed the light over small mounds of frozen mud. Patterns of animal and human footprints crisscrossed in all directions, but he followed the ones his discerning scrutiny indicated mattered the most. At intervals along the way, he took samples.

Bunter cocked his head and closed his eyes, seeming to absorb the stillness of the winter morning, until he alerted Wimsey, "They're coming, my lord." Within seconds, the three heard the Surrey Police vehicles' approaching for the appointed rendezvous.

Police and visitors exchanged cursory greetings in the cold morning. Wasting no time with amenities suited Sherlock fine; his patience for long-winded introductions was especially thin after their wait in the cold. Once he had been given the official go-ahead, he and Lord Peter entered the incident scene. Sherlock scoured the terrain in methodical sweeps. He examined the ground with painstaking precision, sometimes dislodging sculpted mud samples and tucking them into sample containers in his shoulder bag. Gradually, details revealed by the balloon lights and the growing daylight informed his comprehension of the events that took place since Mary's abandoned car had been found.

Wimsey, while curious and excited, had less tolerance for tedious legwork. To his credit, he remained close to Sherlock and demonstrated a keen eye and insightful observation for what they were seeing. His comments of what he observed and his willingness to help whenever Sherlock requested assistance earned Wimsey some much-appreciated praise from his boyhood hero.

Within the hour, Sherlock seemed satisfied. He waved to the police that he was done. Eager to shut down the crime scene and return to their warm station, the constables swarmed past the tape to dismantle the balloon lights and retrieve their investigative equipment.

"We may well have exhausted our search here, Lord Peter," Sherlock said as he held the tape aloft for Wimsey to duck under. "I suspect we will find more useful clues back in the road."

"I'm amazed you leant anything from that chaotic mess of footprints. How like code-breaking it is, when one can parse the patterns—Oh!" Wimsey nudged Sherlock with polite familiarity, "there's Parker now!"

Leaning against an official and unmarked sedan parked near Wimsey's Mercedes was an unassuming man in a woolen overcoat, deep in conversation with his lordship's manservant.

"Charles!" Peter called, his hands cupped around his mouth.

Detective Inspector Charles Parker looked up and acknowledged Lord Peter with a wave and a smile.

"Good of you to come." Wimsey shook hands, his eyes twinkling as he indicated Sherlock. "You must know the Met's only consulting detective by sight…."

"By sight, and more recently by voice, but not yet in person," DI Parker admitted, shaking Sherlock's hand with athletic vigor. "I confess, I've hoped to make your acquaintance, Mr. Holmes, and even work a case together—today, it seems both wishes fulfilled."

"'Destiny has two ways of crushing us,'" Peter quoted with boyish good humor, "'by refusing our wishes and by fulfilling them.'"

Charles laughed at Sherlock's puzzled frown. "Yeah. He's always like that..."

"Oh, I have a quotation for everythin'—it saves original thinkin'," Peter gave them a charmed-filled grin before citing the source, "that was Henri Frederic Amiel, the philosopher, in case you're interested."

"Not particularly," Parker quipped, accustomed to Peter's penchant for repartee, and looked about, "And ah,… your partner, Mr. Holmes? Is Doctor Watson with you?"

"Prior obligations have detained him," Sherlock replied, protective of John's privacy. In addition to the investigative researches for this case, John had required extra time to coordinate Rosie's child care before he could join them. At Parker's obvious disappointment, Sherlock added, "He'll be motoring down this afternoon."

"Looking forward to it," Parker threw a sheepish grin at Lord Peter, "One mirror to another."

Wimsey hooted and shook his head. "You'll never let me live that one down, eh, Charles?" Lord Peter explained, "I made the mistake of quoting the American novelist Edith Wharton in referencing our first sleuthing collaboration: 'There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.' For some reason, my clever friend, here, took offense."

In hearing Parker's and Wimsey's lighthearted exchanged, Sherlock recalled making a similar statement without thought that it might offend John. "You've never been the most luminous of people, but as a conductor of light you are unbeatable." Fortunately, the grudges John bore were not forever; he was a forgiving man.

Sherlock returned their attention to the case. "We've a missing person to find. And I think this location," Sherlock gestured dismissively toward the cordoned-off area, "has nothing further to offer in the way of clues."

"Can't imagine there'd be anything to find—" The DI shrugged as he looked over the sodden, trodden mess of the accident scene.

"—I didn't say I hadn't found anything," Sherlock said over his shoulder as he walked up the road, his eyes on the ground ahead of him. "There's no branch of detective science which's so important and so much neglected as the art of tracing… footsteps." He walked nearly forty meters from the parked vehicles and then stooped abruptly. "The clues are better preserved, here," he shouted and waved Parker and Wimsey to join him.

"What's this?" Parker stared uncomprehendingly at the muddy slope. "Clearly a man's footprint, not a woman's. Days old, yes, but the shoe size and boot style are a man's. Look at the distinctive sole pattern. Someone walking his dog on a filthy night," yet even as Parker said it, he sounded less than convinced by his own analysis.

"Quite, but where are the dog's prints, Charles?" Wimsey indicated an area where the animal's prints should have been visible. "Dare say they could have dissolved in the rain, but the cold has kept the mud frozen for days. Shouldn't there have been at least one paw print, too…? "

"Look closer," Sherlock urged no one in particular. "Tell me. What is the weight of the person wearing the boot?"

"It's a big shoe…12.5 stone?" the DI ventured after a pause.

Lord Peter pulled back in surprise. "No. Charles. Not at all. It appears we're being deceived by the shoe size."

"Lord Peter is right," Sherlock smirked, pleased at the young lord's perspicacity. "Try 9.2 stone."

At their skeptical expressions, Sherlock went on, "Do you see? The footprint impression is deeper in the front and center, but not in the back or along the sides of the boot. This means the weight was not evenly distributed within the boot and the shoe was much larger than the foot within it. This is decidedly a man's boot, but not worn by a man…and I found these same prints mingled with the emergency personnel's footprints at the incident scene."

"Brilliant, Holmes!" Wimsey cried catching on immediately. "These are the colonel's boots, yes?"

"Wait," Parker interrupted. "The housekeeper had said the colonel had the foresight to take his boots."

"Yes, she did. Interesting word, foresight," Sherlock told him. "It implies rational and careful consideration of what may happen in the future."

"I don't understand," Parker scratched his head, while Wimsey chuckled in amusement. "Are you saying, Mr. Holmes, that despite his ironclad alibi, the colonel had been at the scene of the accident?"

"Not necessarily the colonel," Sherlock smiled patiently at Parker and Wimsey, "but his boots have been, according to your own account last night. On the evening Mary disappeared, the colonel left in a rage yet we now know that was well before it started to rain. There would have been no reason for him to take his boots as he 'stormed out the door.' When Mary left hours later, however, it was pouring."

"Mary didn't take her wellies," Lord Peter laughed in delight, explaining his epiphany to Parker, "She took the colonel's! Rushing out the door, she slipped on the simplest boots that didn't require fussing. She had a size 10 foot, but not as large as Archie's. I know you're right, Holmes, because she would try on my shoes all the time once I had grown to full maturity. She said men's shoes were more comfortable…"

"Hell!" Parker smacked his forehead in frustration, "we've been looking for a woman's footprints! That's what stymied the Surrey police when they responded to the call. The Good Samaritan, who stumbled on the abandoned car the next morning and reported it to the police, admitted to treading all around the vehicle, trying to determine if anyone needed assistance. The boot style and sole marks of all the prints at the scene were a man's. There were no woman's footprints. No one imagined she was wearing men's boots."

Sherlock rubbed his hands both for warmth and in satisfaction before pointing down the road. "We have our trail now and we know the destination…I will not be surprised if our answer is waiting for us at The Guardian Posting & Livery House, a B&B less than four miles up the road."

Wimsey's elation dissipated suddenly. "Why would Mary do this—worry us all like this and not tell anyone where she'd gone? Stir up such a media frenzy, leavin' her daughter and runnin' off into the night?" Lord Peter's face darkened. "It's mental; it's so unlike her," his voice was hoarse with concern. "It's like she…she's…!"

"Those answers are precisely what we hope to ascertain," Sherlock tried to re-focus Wimsey's attention from his unproductive rant, "when we locate her. According to all reports from family, friends and associates regarding her character, this behavior would appear to be disassociative…," Sherlock's voice trailed as he recalled his conversation with John the previous night. John had questioned similar points and ended with planning to consult his psychiatrist colleague. Sherlock looked forward to hearing what John had learnt when he joined them later.

"On the possibility that she might be in a fragile mental state, Dr. Watson recommended we proceed cautiously and not approach her just yet," Sherlock resumed, "However, I see no reason to delay locating her nor keeping our eyes on her from a discrete distance until we hear from the good doctor how to proceed. Shall we follow where these footprints lead?"

"If you know where they lead, Mr. Holmes," the DI offered, "taking the cars would get us there sooner, yes?"

"Of course it would," Sherlock nodded, "but following her actual steps might give us a clearer understanding of the transition she made from Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller Christie to Terese Neele, the name under which she had registered nearly four days ago."

"What? Nancy Neele's sister?" Wimsey exclaimed in amazement, "the in-house production editor? How...?"

Sherlock attempted but failed to suppress his pleased grin. "It shall all be clear soon enough. Perhaps, Lord Peter, you'll join me? I think it'll be an informative walk. Your man and DI Parker can meet us at The Guardian by car, yes?"

"Abso-bloody-lutely! Lead on, Mr. Holmes!"

88***88

Chapter Text

88**88

 

The Guardian Posting & Livery House, Guildford

9.12 a.m.

While Lord Peter and Sherlock followed the footprints through the woods, Charles Parker motored on ahead to The Guardian Posting & Livery House, calling headquarters and setting official plans in motion.

Holmes' deduction aside, the Met required irrefutable proof that they had found their missing person before the Detective Inspector could call off the general search. Wimsey, the childhood friend of Agatha Christie, was the obvious choice to make such a confirmation, except the Met, concurring with Dr. Watson's recommendation, had also given Parker strict orders not to upset the famous author with surprises of any kind. His superintendent prohibited DI Parker from moving forward and making contact with the woman—there was no telling how an encounter would affect her—until a mental-health professional was present.

Given the high-profile nature of the case that had headlined the news for days, finding a specialist would have been time-consuming had not Dr. Watson been proactive in informing DI Lestrade of the perfect candidate—Dr. Geraldine Crawford, retired army colonel and civilian consultant-advisor providing mental health in-patient services for former military personnel, specializing in disassociative disorders. By 8.30 a.m., the NSY had approved the esteemed psychiatrist and Parker was ordered to wait until she arrived with Watson.

But as Holmes had stated earlier, there was "no reason to delay" putting their sights on Mrs. Christie from a discrete distance. Parker couldn't have agreed more with the consulting detective and arranged a plan to obtain initial confirmation. Then he waited until the two sleuths reappeared across from The Guardian, the place Holmes had predicted the trail would end.

"Look! I deduce, Charles has some important news," the DI overheard Wimsey's remark to Holmes as he hurried toward them. "Yes, Mr. Holmes, rational and logic-based detection is so rewardin'." Tracking a fugitive with his childhood idol had lightened Wimsey's mood considerably.

"Finally! Been waiting for you…," Parker was winded, more from his excitement than from his brief sprint over and wasn't about to mince words. "Listen, Peter, I'm giving you access…official access…to go into The Guardian."

"What's this, Charles?" Peter gave a hearty laugh, "Just what I was thinkin'! I was sayin' to Mr. Holmes that I should go in, y'see. 'Be sure of it. Give me the ocular proof,' to quote Othello, 'though the Moor of Venice had a rougher time of it."

Charles pressed his lips together in a thin line, wary about his friend's high spirits. The young lord's repertoire of lively comebacks was usually entertaining, but given the sensitive handling this case demanded, the DI didn't want to encourage him. "Don't need anything out of the ordinary, Peter, but I want actual confirmation from someone who really knows her. That someone is you. Go inside and verify that it's Mary. All hush hush, though. You can't let her see you. Make no attempt to talk to her."

"Perhaps I should wear a disguise," Peter's eyes twinkled in merriment as he stroked his chin in thought. "Dressed as a custodial worker or… maybe wait staff, a pair of glasses, a moustache, and a uniform jacket creating the illusion…. She might not even notice me serving her breakfast." He glanced toward Sherlock with a mischievous smile, "As the master of disguises, what do you say, Mr. Holmes?"

Remembering his own misstep in similar garb, Sherlock grimaced, "…the best disguises should be thoughtfully planned—"

"—Be serious, now!" Parker frowned at Peter's flippancy. "Swear to me you understand. This isn't a game for your amusement."

Parker's warning to Wimsey also had a familiar ring; Sherlock recalled how many times his keen interest in a challenging case had been mistaken for inappropriate enjoyment or personal recklessness. Although Lord Peter appeared flippant, Sherlock saw it as the façade it was. Unfortunately, the young lord's convincing act incurred the same misinterpretations from his friends.

"Of course, Charles," Lord Peter sobered immediately. "I may come off as rather frivolous and superficial, but you know me well enough. I can be serious."

"Yes, yes, I know…didn't mean to disparage," Parker replied, palms up in apology. With a twinge of guilt came the sudden notion that he was taxing his still-recovering friend with a responsibility the PTSS veteran may not be ready to bear after only a year out of the military. The DI wondered if he were doing his friend a disservice. A flashback would be unfortunate both for Peter and their case.

Parker's hesitation was obvious to Wimsey. "Charles," Peter assured him in a quiet voice that he rarely used, "I'm not that fragile and I know this is no lark. I care about Mary and want to see this through properly."

Sherlock watched with curiosity Charles Parker's silent war. It took a moment before the DI's expression softened. "Fine. The staff have told me that the office behind the registration desk offers the best view of several side corridors and a partial view of both the lobby and the sitting-room. From there you will ascertain beyond a shadow of a doubt that it's Mary…. Any questions?"

Wimsey straightened his shoulders before replying, "All good, Charles."

The seasoned intelligence officer in Lord Peter was pleased by his covert assignment and at being able to act, at last, in Mary's behalf. Situated in the back office, he remained alert to the guests coming and going to breakfast or heading off to a morning walk or on local tours. He listened as staff members answered phones; he observed the maids appear from the lift and roll their carts stocked with towels, sheets, and cleaning supplies through the corridors toward the rooms. His patience and finesse to endure the two-hour surveillance paid off handsomely when he caught sight of his unwitting friend strolling through the lobby in her slippers—a book in one hand, a mug of tea in the other—as she headed to the sitting room to enjoy them. Relief at finding her safe welled up. Hard pressed as he was to rush toward her, to offer her hugs, sympathy, and an "allo" in greeting, Wimsey withdrew without revealing himself—Parker's orders had been clear.

After receiving confirmation, Detective Inspector Parker called in the search, tightened the police circles, and marshalled select units to stand by. And then, they waited… again.

Waiting made Sherlock uneasy. When Wimsey and he had emerged from the woodlands several hours earlier, the advantage of surprise had still been possible. It would have been simple to apprehend Agatha Mary Christie in residence. Unfortunately, abiding by the medical and police recommendations—not to approach the subject without the proper personnel present—squandered their earlier advantage. Sherlock feared the longer they took to set the mouse trap, the greater the chances the mouse would have moved elsewhere. He wouldn't call it instinct—more probability—but it was not a feeling he could ignore. And DI Parker's earned reputation for being cautious and following orders to the letter meant he would wait for the Met-approved psychiatric specialist motoring with John.

But then Parker received a call from his superintendent. Colonel Christie's litigator pulled some strings, asserting the wife was non compos mentis and that the husband must also be on site when the psychiatric determination was made—yet another delay Sherlock had not anticipated ….

**88**

88**88

1.23 p.m.

"Not bad," John noted to his passenger when he pulled into the carpark adjacent to The Guardian Posting & Livery House. "This trip took scarcely an hour."

He steered his Audi to the left of the main entrance and found a space closer to a side door. "You requested discretion, Gerri. Is this discrete enough?" He shifted the gear into park and waited for her reply.

'Quite, John. So, those men over there," Gerri, a robust woman in her early sixties, squinted against the afternoon glare penetrating the windscreen, "are waiting at the staff entrance?"

"Appears so." John turned off the engine. "And 'those men' happen to be the investigative team." He had instantly spotted Sherlock leaning against the wall by the side door of the old-world styled coaching house converted to a B&B. His friend was talking to a nondescript man in a long woolen coat. Lord Peter was casually sipping from a ceramic mug, a tongue of steam rising from its rim, while Bunter with thermos in hand was close by his side. "They're the ones we need to meet," John opened his door. "Ready?"

While eager to stretch her legs, Gerri remained seated. "We passed a string of police cars and an ambulance parked in the High Street. Good move. No need to alarm the patient unduly. But what's this bus about?" She pointed to a luxury coach, the name Swan Hydro Spa, Harrogate in attractive block letters along its side. The bus was idling at the main entrance of the polished timber-framed structure, awaiting its passengers.

"Dunno. C'mon, let's see what's up," John shrugged and propelled himself out his door.

"Not transporting our guest, I hope," She said to herself, but looked up in surprise at John, holding her door open and offering her a hand. "I see, an officer and a gentleman," she beamed him a smile of thanks. John and Gerri, joined the waiting men at the side entrance.

Above the heads of the others Sherlock caught John's eye. He nodded once in silent acknowledgement when their glances met. They had neither spoken nor texted since earlier that morning. His eagerness to hear what John had learnt fueled Sherlock's nervous energy, so during the requisite and predictable volley of introductions, Sherlock heaved a great sigh before interrupting."—Yesssss! Let's speed this up a bit, shall we?" he snapped and hurtled through the remaining cordialities with exaggerated enthusiasm. "Thrilled! We're all thrilled, Dr. Crawford, DI Charles Parker, Lord Peter Wimsey, here, a personal friend of our patient, and his man Bunter—"

Wimsey and Parker showed surprise, but the psychiatrist exchanged knowing looks with John and laughed.

"—And you must be Sherlock Holmes," Gerri made a point of shaking Sherlock's hand with an extra pump. Her smile, genuine and warm, deepened her laugh lines, "Heard so much about you. A true pleasure!"

Suspicious of her earnestness, Sherlock muttered, "Probably John has regaled you with his stories…not completely true, most of them…., although I'm sure he's used the word 'difficult" several times. That is completely true." He cleared his throat. "We're done now, yes? Shall we discuss this case? Wouldn't want the missing woman to disappear again while we're off on the side chit-chatting."

"Of course! So what are we waiting for, then?" Dr. Crawford asked.

"We're waiting for Colonel Archibald Christie," Parker replied. "I've just been informed her husband's a few minutes away."

Sherlock muttered under his breath about "more delays," but Lord Peter voiced his objection, "Charles, I know I said this earlier, but I find it unfathomable that Archie's comin' at all! He's the reason she went runnin' off."

"We don't know that, Peter," Parker shook his head, "Her household staff told the police she appeared calm when she left with the attaché case, and that was hours after the argument. They were under the impression she had changed her mind about waiting until morning and intended to return it that night. That's why no one tried to stop her." Resting a sympathetic hand on Lord Peter's shoulder, Charles gently emphasized his words, "The colonel has a legitimate alibi. He didn't cause her car accident—."

"Maybe not directly," Wimsey insisted in a soft voice, "but if she was distraught from his demands for a divorce, he might have done—indirectly."

"That's why we have Dr. Crawford here, to help us navigate the territory of 'distraught.' Look, Peter. I know this's frustrating, but I've got to do this by the book," When Parker stood firm, Wimsey knew there was no budging him.

"So, where's our patient now?" the psychiatrist asked.

"Still inside and unaware of our presence," Parker reported. "We've been told that since she arrived four days ago she's done nothing to draw attention to herself. Her routine's been to spend time reading, writing, socializing with other guests, taking tea and her meals in her room. We now have our detectives in street-clothes posing as guests to watch her."

"It's puzzlin', really!" Peter admitted, letting Bunter refill his mug from the thermos and watching his man offer tea to Gerri, who accepted, and John, who declined. "Except for requestin' a pair of slippers from the night manager when she turned up at half twelve in the mornin' four days ago—she claimed she'd forgotten hers and he could see her boots were too muddy to walk about the rooms—she has not required anythin' of the hotel staff since. All this time she has hidden in plain sight and she's not even wearin' a disguise!"

"How did they not recognize her, then?" John snorted his incredulity, "With all the police activity, days of literally beating the bushes, checking the local lakes, asking the public for help, along with the media coverage, it's curious she escaped detection for so long!"

"The Guardian Posting & Livery House is 'a refuge for those escapin' the noise of the world, offerin' a haven from electronic devices in an unplugged environment," Lord Peter recited in a newsreader's voice, "as well as Spa Day, Meditation and Mindfulness programs for soothin' frazzled nerves. A place to disconnect from technology and reconnect with humanity.'"

"Seriously, Peter?" Charles pulled back in wonder.

"Seriously," Lord Peter gave a mirthless chuckle. His free hand pulled a printed brochure from his coat pocket and waved it with a flourish. "It says all that right here. Picked this up to read while surveillin' inside …"

"Must be Spa Day," Crawford sipped at her tea and used the cup to point to the bus. "Can't have her board that bus." She eyed the quaint shop-lined street close to the inn, adding, "We can't have her sight-seeing freely about, either. I know it's a raw February day, but she may not be put off by the climate. What's been done to secure the situation?"

"After we alerted the proprietors," Parker nodded, "concerning the circumstances, eyes have been on her since we arrived. They know not to let her leave. For the moment, they report she's in her room."

"So, if I understand it correctly," John huffed on his fingertips to warm them, "she traipsed through the woods from the accident scene and happened upon a B&B without Wi-Fi and media access…?"

"Happened, indeed," Parker mulled, "A bit of a coincidence, when you think about it. This B&B's 'tech-free' ambiance would explain why the scope of Agatha Christie's 'disappearance' was unknown to the other guests. Even when the local police made inquiries showing a headshot at the front desk, they didn't realize she was registered—"

"—because she was registered as Terese Neele," Sherlock couldn't conceal his smirk, "Shocking to the proprietors once they were informed. Never questioned when she flashed her ID that she had an assumed name. Such an oversight is no compliment to their guest-registration protocols. Plus, that brochure is misleading, The Guardian is not entirely an unplugged environment; it uses the Internet for bookings as most places do. It even houses its guest lists on the network server—where I found the name Neele last night—however, with a system of private routers within the building, technology is not available to their guests."

"They allow their guests to read, don't they?" Dr. Crawford cupped her tea for warmth. "Are there no Agatha Christie's books on their shelves? No newspapers?"

"Astute point, doctor!" Sherlock commended. "One would presume her face would be a familiar one in print. Except those touched-up headshots from her book jackets—photo-editing at its best—bear little resemblance to her actual likeness, at least for an ordinary, unobservant person on holiday…."

"It figures then, that the attaché case is how she got possession of a false identity, yes?" Lord Peter took another sip of tea as he followed the thought, "but what else was in the case? It had to be more than just some personal identification, a few papers to sign, and a copy of a manuscript….?"

"Yes! At last," Sherlock crowed, "we get to the HOW of her disappearance, if not the WHY. Proceed, John! What did Terese Neele tell you about her attaché case?"

"You're right, Sherlock. No surprises there. The attaché case is not what it seemed, at all. When I asked Ms. Neele about it this morning, she was surprised by my question and checked her office. It was then she realized it was missing and maybe it had been mistakenly delivered to Mary that night."

"You might save the flourishes for your blog, John," Sherlock urged. "Just the summary, please."

"Sure, okay," John nodded and spoke faster. "It's equipped with Neele's ID and credit card, along with cash, lingerie, toiletries, and several packable, travel outfits—"

"—What? No! Mary would never be so uncouth…" The fashion-conscious Peter seemed shocked by yet another indication of Mary's strange behavior, "that she'd wear wrinkled clothes—"

"Fear not, my lord," Bunter assured Wimsey, "Women's polyester-blend fabrics are lightweight and wrinkle-free and can be rolled to fit in tight spaces…leaving no discernible wrinkles."

"Yeah. Who knew?" John's eyebrows lifted in surprise. Taken aback by Wimsey and Bunter's asides, he quickly returned to his narrative. "And... the sample manuscript pages in the case are bogus. They're there to hide Neele's personal things. Basically, Terese Neele admitted to using this attaché case as her clandestine 'travel bag,' to skip out for recreational purposes. It makes it look like she's working extra hours from home or on weekends. You can image how livid she became when she realized that Christie's PA had picked up the wrong attaché case. It exposed her best-kept secret."

"Brilliant! It was human error that delivered a well-packed carry-on to Agatha Christie. Essentially, it allowed her to disappear and become Terese Neele!" Sherlock was inordinately pleased. He flashed a satisfied look at John before turning to the others. "As I said, that explains HOW it was done."

"Yet, another coincidence!" Lord Peter cried, elated by the revelation. "And what an opportunity was literally handed to Mary at a very traumatic moment in her life, d'you see?"

Wimsey's question robbed Sherlock of his momentary pleasure. "Perhaps…perhaps. Opportunity by coincidence…." He muttered so softly, John barely heard him despite standing beside him. With a shake of his head, Sherlock resumed control of the discussion. "Now, Dr. Crawford," his tone devoid of his previous self-assuredness, "we need you to explain WHY it was done. What are we dealing with?"

"Until I see her—talk to her—I cannot confirm my suspicion you understand. John briefed me as we motored here, so I do suspect we are dealing with a type of dissociative disorder. Depending on the symptoms, I can determine which dissociative disorder it is."

"Could the sudden death of her mother have brought this on?" Lord Peter wondered.

"Possible. People respond to stimuli in different ways, as I'm sure you know. A dissociative disorder ordinarily first develops in response to a traumatic event, such as abuse or military combat, and is an attempt by the brain to keep those memories under control. It occurs when the fight or flight response fails and the brain is preparing the body for injury, so it 'detaches.' It's a last-ditch emergency response system. Yet dissociation doesn't just happen after a traumatic event," she continued. "A person could have non-trauma-related panic attacks which cause dissociation. So not everyone requires such extremes to become susceptible, but if prior stressful situations put more pressure in her life and were compounded by the loss of her mother, they can have precipitated dissociative symptoms, worsened existing ones or caused problems with functioning in everyday activities. And her car accident could have tipped her over the edge…"

"Again, literally," Peter muttered, "as her car nearly did—"

The crunch of tyres on gravel made everyone turn toward the sound. A black, BMW Grand Coupe, approached them slowly. As if daunted by their stares, the car pulled no closer, coming to a complete stop in the middle of the carpark.

Lord Peter reacted at once. He handed his mug to his manservant. "Hold my tea, Bunter," he snapped sharply and started removing his jacket, "and for that matter, my coat…" His eyes narrowed to crinkled slits. "Charles, look away. If my words fail me, I'll have to use my fist…" he warned in a low voice that seemed more truth than jest.

"Mind yourself, Peter," Parker pressed his hand against his friend's chest and spoke from the side of his mouth. "Hate to have to haul you off to gaol for grievous bodily harm," he cautioned, all the time his eyes fixed on the sedan "The Colonel is required to be here to aid in the identification process, as his wife seems to be hiding behind an alias." Parker turned a kindly eye on his friend. "I know your allegiance to Mary is strong, but do this for her, whaddya say?"

The fierce gleam in Lord Peter's eyes cooled. Shrugging back into his coat, he took back his tea from Bunter, and looked down at the crushed stones of the carpark. "Of course, Charles. We've all got a sore spot we don't like to have touched…. And that man rankles me for the grief he's caused Mary."

As Parker headed toward Colonel Christie's car, Wimsey moved a short distance away to recompose himself, now kicking at the loose stones beneath his feet. Rather than watch his Met friend invite the reluctant husband to step out of the car, Peter turned his back on the scene to finished his tea and to study the passengers that were beginning to board the bus. Once Bunter rejoined him, Wimsey's anger abated. He handed his manservant the empty mug and, with his temper now in check, he returned to the group; the silent, watchful Bunter was just a step behind him.

"One thousand police constables looking for her!" raged the well-dressed man standing alongside his impeccable sedan. His indignation—released at full volume against the Detective Inspector—distorted his handsome features. "And even more volunteers—they say fifteen hundred?—and she was right under your very noses! The incompetence is galling."

"I understand your aggravation," Parker consoled as he guided Archie Christie toward the staff entrance of the inn.

"Don't think you do, sir!" The colonel scowled. "Besides the press being generally horrid with accusations about my involvement, I had to keep our daughter from hearing the lurid theories—drowned in the nearby Silent Pool, spooked by our home. Rubbish, all of it! Libelous. At last there's proof I'm neither complicit nor a murderer. Where is she?""

"First, your tone will have to change," Dr. Crawford commanded sternly, handing her mug back to Bunter, "before you see her. Is that clear?"

"Who's this?" Colonel Christie pulled back and eyed the psychiatrist who stood at the threshold like a bulldog on watch.

Dreading more time wasted on introductions, Sherlock seized the situation by impersonating Mycroft at his most officious, "The commanding officer of this operation. You do as she says or you will be removed and held for further questioning under the Serious Crime Bill for psychological abuse of a spouse. That's five years in gaol or a hefty fine, or both, if found guilty!" He spun toward the psychiatrist, "Proceed, Dr. Crawford. What are your instructions?"

Silenced by the ferocity of Sherlock's authority and warning, a seething Christie bowed his head, "Understood. You have my full cooperation."

Everyone blinked in surprise. Although what Sherlock threatened was not quite true, only Colonel Christie didn't know.

John imagined hearing a collective sigh from Wimsey and Parker. He suspected there were conspiratorial winks or arched eyebrows exchanged behind the colonel's back, but he couldn't be sure because he had turned away both to hid his wide grin and to cover his chortle with a cough.

**888**

What the psychiatrist, the Detective Inspector, and the husband found when they entered The Guardian Posting & Livery House was not laughable, however. Agatha Mary Christie was not in her room sipping tea, nor was she in the sitting room reading. She was not in the dining hall enjoying breakfast nor on the veranda taking in the crisp February air and scenic vistas. She appeared to have eluded the plain-clothes detectives keeping watch. She was nowhere to be found.

Wimsey, Sherlock, and John had been waiting in the lobby when the upsetting news collided with the ordered routine of the Guardian staff. Desk clerks, bellhops, and maids scattered to the far corners when Archie Christie roared at the manager in anger, Dr. Gerri Crawford nattered to no one in particular about the dissociative mind in distress. An upset Lord Peter whirled in place and raked nervous fingers through his hair in frustration; Parker turned ashen with both dread and embarrassment, shouting commands to his men as the Swan Hydro Spa, Harrogate departed. "Stop that bus!"

John looked to Sherlock for guidance who, in the midst of the maelstrom, had closed his eyes, steepled his fingers under his chin, and muttered to himself.

"Huh?" John leant in closer to hear what Sherlock was saying. All he made out were three words. "…Mistress of misdirection."

88**88

Chapter Text

88**88

The Guardian Posting & Livery House, Guildford

"She's not on the bus!" Sherlock groaned and opened his eyes. He checked his surroundings to confirm his deduction, but he was too late to halt Parker and his detectives from speeding out to chase it down. John, Lord Peter, Dr. Gerri Crawford, and Bunter had left him standing alone in the center of the lobby to hurry to the lobby's front window.

Police vehicles pulled across the road and blocked the Spa bus' departure. DI Parker, Colonel Christie and several constables boarded the bus to check the passengers.

"A wild goose chase," Sherlock stated matter-of-factly when he joined the onlookers, "because Mrs. Christie is still here. Isn't that she, Lord Peter, over there," he tilted his head in the direction of the sitting room, "…reading?"

Lord Peter spun around, amazed to see that Mary was as Sherlock observed, quietly reading, snuggled in a large upholstered armchair, a bulky quilted-fabric handbag at her feet, and apparently unaware of the commotion she had caused.

"My God, Mr. Holmes!" Wimsey hissed. "She wasn't there moments ago! What just happened?" Astonished by her sudden appearance, Peter fished out his mobile to ring Parker, then thrust the device at Bunter before the first ring, "Bunter, explain this to Charles, would you? Do your best for me. I'm a bit…tongue tied…"

"Very good, my lord," the valet nodded, unruffled by Wimsey's abruptness.

While Bunter related the discovery to Parker, Lord Peter edged closer to the doorway of the sitting room for a better look; Dr. Crawford was right behind him.

"Not the bus, then," John touched Sherlock's forearm to detain him, "How did you know?"

"The bus's too obvious," Sherlock bounced on his toes, keeping his eyes on the woman in the sitting room. "Everyone would immediately think she boarded the bus…."

"Everyone would think…?" John huffed a laugh. "This isn't a mystery novel, Sherlock."

"Of course not, John," Sherlock whirled toward his friend, his eyes afire, adding softly for only John's ears, "but this is a mystery and I have a theory about this mystery writer…."

"That's what you meant by mistress of misdirection?" John raised his brows, his expression a mix of skepticism and curiosity.

"Yes, John. But I'm not certain if what we're witnessing is subconscious or …" he confided sotto voce, "…or… or deliberate, though it's curiously convenient…."

"Deliberate?" John wondered if he'd heard right, but Sherlock had joined Lord Peter and the psychiatrist waiting at the threshold.

"Dr. Crawford, I have a plan," Sherlock whispered, "in which your cooperation is essential. As we approach our subject, we'll need your professional evaluation of what transpires."

"Of course, Mr. Holmes," Gerri agreed. "Observation is key."

"Couldn't agree with you more," Sherlock grinned. "John, Lord Peter, accompany me, will you?"

The three men entered the sitting room and drifted toward the preoccupied woman without initiating contact. Following Sherlock's lead, they talked softly among themselves, whilst casting surreptitious glances at the woman who appeared utterly absorbed in her book.

Sherlock purposely discussed the missing author, deliberately speaking loudly enough to be overheard. If the topic did not captivate her attention, their encroaching chatter would at least annoy her. Perhaps it would stimulate her to request they move out of earshot.

But neither happened. She remained oblivious to them and their gossip as if they—or she—were not present.

Catching Gerri's eye, John pointed to Lord Peter and mouthed the question, "Should he talk to her, now?"

Once she nodded, Wimsey approached Mary and turned on his charm. "Sorry, Miss. We're curious if you've heard what we've been on about? The headlines, d'you see, about this bizarre disappearance of…?" Peter paused. His deliberate vocal inflection changed his next utterance from object of a preposition to direct address, "Mrs. Agatha Christie?" Peter was leaning forward, bent at the waist, his face directly over her book and scanning her face.

The eyes that met his gaze were glazed, vacant. She showed no recognition for Peter. Worse, to Sherlock's mind, she seemed detached; it took her a moment to realize that someone was talking to her, let alone a close personal friend. She shook her head in a subtle motion and focused on the face in front of her.

"Yes?" She blinked. "Can I help you?"

Peter pulled back as if she had slapped him. The emptiness in her voice and eyes stunned him, "Mary…my dear. It's Peter…your friend Petey …Wimsey?"

"Who?" She relaxed her hold on the book and it slid from her lap to the carpet, landing beside her handbag with a soft thud. She made no effort to retrieve it, as if she completely forgot she had been holding it. "Sorry. What did you say?"

Peter empathized with her confusion, suffering similar disorientation during his combat stress flashbacks. He dropped to his knee and with caution, tenderly cupped his hand over the limp one in her lap. She did not pull away as he feared she might. "We're relieved to find you here. Mary. We've been looking for you—for days—worried sick because we didn't know where you were. How are you feelin'? How did you get h—" his voice broke.

"Who's Mary?" she stammered, her hand still under Peter's.

"You are," John answered because Lord Peter seemed unable to speak. "You're Agatha Mary Clarisse Christie. You write detective novels."

Her eyes clouded. She shook her head in rejection of John's assertion. "No, no…no. You must be mistaken," she protested weakly. "You're wrong. My name is Terese…."

"You don't sound convinced," Sherlock remarked, his observation slipping from her blank expression to her inert hands, to her crossed ankles, and rested on the large quilted bag at her feet.

"Of course, I'm Terese," she spoke as if waking from a dream, "Yes. It's true. Yes, I can prove it…my things—" she motioned for the handbag.

Sherlock lifted the bag—on the heavy side at 2.4 kg, but average weight for the modern womanand handed it to her.

She fumbled trying to open it. When she did, she shoved aside the clothing items, receipts, and cosmetics, and dug deep until she retrieved a credit card. It was not in a wallet, but loose on the bottom of the bag. "See!" The credit card she showed them contained a thumbnail photo of a nondescript woman with auburn hair. While there was some likeness if one was only giving it a cursory look, on close inspection it was a photo of a different woman.

"—Your things say one thing, but do you know if you really ARE Terese?" Gerri had joined the men and was kneeling beside the armchair, opposite Lord Peter. She kept her voice firm and sympathetic while observing the patient's response to this most crucial question.

"Do I know?" Mary paled, her lips trembled, and her eyes filled with tears. She brought her hand to her throat, obviously bewildered by doubts. "Who did you say I was?... Agatha, Mary? Which is it? I'm confused."

"You're not Terese Neele," Gerri explained evenly, "the woman whose name is on this card. You're Agatha Christie, a mystery writer, but you've been known to your friend, Lord Peter," she pointed to Wimsey, "as Mary since you both were children."

"Oh," she considered the facts with a furrowed brow. "Why don't I know this? I've not been feeling…myself lately. Sometimes I think I'm about to remember something but then it goes away…." She dropped her gaze to the hand Peter held and mumbled. "I'm not sure anymore. What am I doing here?"

"Oh, Mary! Don't fret, darlin'! We're here to help," Wimsey raised her hand and with brotherly affection brought it to his cheek. "It's time for you to come home."

"What's this?" Archie Christie stood with arms akimbo in the doorway of the sitting room flanked by Parker and Bunter. "Agatha!" The unmistakable relief in his voice had undertones of aggravation. "What are you doing here?"

Mary threw him a stony stare and shuddered. She did not respond to the man who had addressed her. Instead, she yanked her hand free of Peter's and, closing her eyes, curled herself into the armchair with her legs pulled under her.

Peter froze.

John swore, "Jeeezus Bloody Hell" under his breath at the setback Christie's blunt intrusion had just caused his wife. For an instant, John felt enraged, his fists curled but he quelled his urge to strike Colonel Christie. With one last shake to clear his head, John gave Sherlock a sidelong glance and saw that Sherlock was studying him.

"Y'okay?" It was a whisper.

John nodded, aware of the keen but kind eyes scrutinizing him. He swallowed and whispered back. "Yeah, but someone's gotta do something about him," his eyes pointed toward the colonel.

"Someone already is," Sherlock assured him.

Dr. Crawford had been quick to intervene. She had rushed from the patient's armchair toward the colonel. Standing face to face she hissed, "You, sir, must not speak to her unless I request you to."

Eager to hear what Dr. Crawford had to say, Sherlock followed her. At first, John hesitated. He was reluctant to leave Mrs. Christie, but as her condition remained unchanged, he kept his eyes on the woman and moved closer so he could listen as well.

"Your wife is showing signs of memory loss," Gerri continued. "She appears detached from her surroundings and needs a gentle hand to help her re-acclimate. You must refrain from any kind of recriminations, understand?"

Scowling, the colonel backed away from the formidable woman, threw sour looks toward Parker, Sherlock, and John, but cooperated.

Lord Peter, recovering from his own shock, had remained by his friend's side. He gently stroked Mary's hair and spoke soothingly to his friend, doing his best to coax the woman from her retreat.

"Here, my lord," Bunter spoke in his ear and pulled a bottle of peppermint oil from his pocket. He offered it to Wimsey, "Let her smell this. It will awaken the senses…" He bent toward Lord Peter and lowered his voice, "It's worked for you."

"What can't you do, Bunter, old friend?" Peter accepted the small bottle from his valet with a warm grin of gratitude and held the strong scent under Mary's nose. She sneezed and coughed and opened her eyes.

"Welcome back, dear Mary," Wimsey's face beamed such a smile that for a mind drifting in the murky fog of memory it acted like a lighthouse beacon. She smiled back.

8**8

"Dr. Crawford," Charles Parker watched Peter and Bunter with concern, noting they were having some success with rousing Mary, "Do you know what's going on here?"

"I believe we are witnessing a dissociative fugue that occurs during dissociative amnesia," the psychiatrist explained. "This condition has perhaps been precipitated by her recent car accident. We know that her fugue's lasted several days already. She's travelled from home and is assuming a new name and identity, unaware that it's not who she is. Autobiographic memory is normally part of our conscious awareness. She has lost hers. In addition, she appears confused, distressed, and until we approached her, indifferent. We must take her for observation. I will make recommendations appropriate for her case. Call in your ambulance, so we can start the process."

"Can we do something here…to re-acclimate her, then?" Parker worried that Mary might not cooperate with her recovery operation if she felt she was being taken against her will.

"For now, there are a few things… I can help her take advantage of every sense she has and root her mind in something very concrete," Dr. Crawford answered. "Counting back from one hundred by threes is a common one. Having her hold something cold, like an ice cube, or smelling a strong scent might derail or shrink her dissociative episode, enough so we can get her to agree to let us take her to hospital."

"What about questioning her, then?" Parker caught the psychiatrist's frown and clarified his reason for asking. "We'll need something for the record from her regarding her disappearance."

"In time," Crawford assured the Detective Inspector. "She probably can't tell you much now. However, with the proper treatment in a supportive environment, her memories may return quick enough, and along with them, some answers you require. The restoration of autobiographic memory usually happens when a patient it taken out of the traumatic or stressful situations."

"When do I get to talk to her?" the colonel piped.

"In good time, colonel," the psychiatrist replied in a slightly sterner voice, "but you may bring her daughter around sooner, as seeing her may help her recover valuable, cherished memories. That's what we wish to restore. Now I must get to my patient!" Finished with her explanations, she spun on her heel.

While the psychiatrist assisted Wimsey and Bunter in engaging the patient in the sitting room and the colonel pulled out his mobile to make a call, Parker spoke with two of his waiting detectives, Owen and Lewis. Sherlock and John listened.

"How did she slip by you?" Parker turned accusatory as he questioned them. "She was in a fugue state for God's sake, yet she eluded your surveillance!"

The detectives exchanged dismayed glances before Owen answered. "Can't explain it, Gov. We had eyes on her all the time. We followed her to the breakfast room, we watched her in the sitting room, and we made sure we never let her out of our sight until she went into her room. We hung back in the corridor, but she never came out after."

"That's it?" Charles Parker was incredulous.

"Yes, Gov," both men answered simultaneously.

"Did you see anyone else while you watched her room?" Sherlock interrupted. The painful display of ineptitude had him gritting his teeth. It was all he could do to control his frustration with ordinary brains.

Both men shared another nonverbal exchange. This time Lewis answered. "There was a maid…."

Parker's eyes narrowed. "A maid! And where was this maid?"

"Coming out of Mrs. Christie's room," Owen answered.

"Coming out?" Parker exhaled sharply and rolled his eyes. "Tell me exactly what happened."

"Well, you see," Lewis picked up, "all the while we were tailing Mrs. Christie, she seemed a bit muddled, walking through the hallway mumbling to herself, sometimes giggling at nothing, really. She acted like she was drugged or a bit tipsy… off balance, distracted, you know, unfocused."

"Quite. And she had trouble with her card key," Owen went on. "She fumbled with it and finally opened her door. It was then she acted surprised, but not alarmed. She started talking to someone inside, and closed the door behind her. At first we thought it was still symptoms of her mental confusion. We went up close and heard her voice still talking… but when the door opened again, we darted back across the hall, and stood at another door like it was our room."

"But it was only the maid coming out," Lewis resumed. "She was carrying used towels and some bed linens stuffed in a quilted fabric bag. She backed out the door, saying 'all good, ma'am. Call the front desk if you need more,' and closed the door behind her. She was polite and swift-like and bid us a good day."

"Yeah, quick as anything," Owen continued. "She hurried down the stairs to the laundry room."

Lewis added, "We waited a second before approaching Mrs. Christie's door. She wasn't talking anymore, but we heard the water running…like someone was in the bathroom. Then it stopped. We stayed close and watched her door until you came up …."

"How did you know it was a maid?" Sherlock fixed the men with a piercing look.

"Huh?" the question and Sherlock's laser stare took Owen off guard.

"She was wearing a white cap and smock, like the other housekeeping girls do," Lewis replied hesitantly.

"A white smock and cap like these?" Sherlock pulled the garment out from under his jacket and held it up. He pulled the white cap from the smock's pocket.

"Yes!" both men affirmed.

"Where did you get those, Sherlock?" John couldn't help but ask.

Delighted with John's perfectly timed question, Sherlock grinned, "From the fabric bag Mary was rummaging through to find her—I mean Neele's—ID, a bag that was obviously not hers, nor Neele's. Its size was too bulky to be one of the items in the attaché case and it was not among the items Terese Neele told you the case contained. Perhaps its owner is the same as the housekeeping staff whose name is embroidered on this lapel…S Miller?"

Parker and his detectives were dumbfounded, so Sherlock continued, "Did you ever see both women at the same time?"

"What do you mean?" Lewis found his voice.

"The maid and Mrs. Christie together. Did you see them both at the same time?" Sherlock's voice was tight with impatience.

Both men shook their heads and looked sheepish. Charles smacked his forehead in frustration.

"But we heard her running the water…?" Owen offered.

"Until it stopped," Sherlock reminded him. "What you likely heard was the toilet tank refilling. During the inordinate wait this morning, I had time to check the floorplan for The Guardian. Rooms in that corridor have the loo next to the door."

Charles was beside himself with his detectives' glaring oversights, "You let an unhinged woman sneak out right under your noses?"

"We never expected she could do something like that," Lewis defended himself. "She was entirely off her nut—we spent hours watching her, so we know—besides, the turnaround in her room was too quick. Something like this takes planning… "

"Presuming she was 'off her nut' may have been your first mistake." Sherlock charged them. "Perhaps she noticed you and used a diversionary tactic to get away. Having trouble with one's memory isn't an impediment to cleverness."

"Seriously, Sherlock? You think a woman suffering from dissociative amnesia can be duplicitous?" John puzzled over the seeming contradiction.

"Again, you hit the nail on the head, John! That's what we need to ascertain," Sherlock's broadening grin exceeded John's metric tolerance for 'appropriate.'

Before John could advise Sherlock to tone it down, there was commotion behind them. All turned to see Lord Peter, Bunter, and Dr. Crawford accompanying Mary from the sitting room. A staff member retrieved her coat and the man-sized boots—no longer muddy—she had worn that night. He helped her into her coat but she slipped her feet effortlessly into the large boots. Another staff member handed the attaché case to DI Parker explaining there was nothing else in the room but it was open for police inspection.

The psychiatrist's and Wimsey's ministrations had jump-started her recovery. Mary now wore a weak smile. Her expression was weary but her empty stare had disappeared. She looked around in wonder, seeing her surroundings through a new lens, a lens of an autobiographic memory.

"Archie? Is that you?" she addressed her husband who had rung off his mobile.

Colonel Christie could only gawp at his wife, bewildered by her recent odd behavior.

"Is Rosalie okay?" Mary pleaded. "Tell her I'm sorry…I don't know what came over me. Will you please? My memory was gone! It's all a bit murky, still, but it's coming back."

Recalling her earlier prohibition on speaking to his wife, Archie darted his eyes toward the psychiatrist. Dr. Crawford nodded approval. He cleared his throat, trying to sound normal, "Of course, dear. I've just rung Rosalind to tell her the good news. She said she can't wait to give her mummy a welcome-home hug—" His voice broke and he looked away.

"Come along, Mrs. Christie," Dr. Crawford directed the woman. "We'll be going with these helpful people, here," she pointed to the EMTs, a man and woman, who had pulled the ambulance to the front entrance.

Gripping Lord Peter's arm, Mary appeared placated by the psychiatrist's assurances and allowed them to conduct her toward the entrance. As she passed Sherlock and John, she paused to study them.

"Yes. These two were instrumental in finding you so quickly," Lord Peter flashed his mentors a smile and whispered in Mary's ear, "otherwise, I'm sure it would've taken another week to locate you."

"Really?" Mary's eyes widened.

"You know, Mary, until now, the world presented itself to me as an entertaining labyrinth of side-issues," Wimsey admitted with a chuckle, "but they've proven that a human being must have occupation if he or she's not to become a nuisance to the world." Admiration lit his face. "Once again, Mr. Holmes, you have found what I thought I'd lost, d'you see? Not just my friend Mary, but a purpose. What better occupation than to be a sleuth to solve mysteries? Abso-bloody-lutely!"

Peter released his hold on Mary and shook Sherlock's hand. As he shook John's, Mary caught Sherlock's eye and gave him a cagey smile. Using the amicable exchange between Wimsey and John to cover her, she whispered to Sherlock, "…Or to be a writer of mysteries, yes, Mr. Sherlock Holmes?"

"—We must be off, Mrs. Christie," Dr. Crawford interrupted and stepped forward to retrieve her charge.

As they whisked away the woman whose disappearance had mystified the nation, Sherlock stood in silent wonder at what he had witnessed. He would not eclipse Wimsey's moment of triumph with his niggling doubts, so he said nothing, not even to John.

88***88


Epilogue to follow.

Chapter Text

88**88

A week later, February 2019

 

Outside

- SH

Sherlock texted John and rang the doorbell anyway, twice—two short pulses. As was typical, it was just moments before Rosie's bedtime. John was not surprised at his friend's timing: Sherlock preferred his conferences with John when there were fewer interruptions from the active child.

However, there were other reasons why the time before and not after suited Sherlock. The doorbell was a special signal for Rosie. She would come squealing with excitement to greet him and it was obvious in how he reacted that he relished her attention. Beneath Sherlock's cool façade radiated a warmth and affection no one else elicited from his taciturn friend. Watching this almost-ritualized exchange between them warmed John's heart. Sherlock always had a way with children. The routine greeting would usually end when Rosie, squeezing extra special hugs around his neck, would wish him, "Nightie night, Uncle Sherlock," making Sherlock's eyes sparkle.

But not tonight, John noted.

"You've had a strop on since you got here, Sherlock," John was pouring their tea when Sherlock had returned from hanging his greatcoat in the foyer. "One of your weeklong sulks?"

With Rosie tucked up for the night, John had persuaded his fidgety friend to stay for tea. There was something bothering Sherlock that John felt warranted closer inspection. Although Sherlock's expressed his intentions for a brief visit—giving excuses about experiments he needed to check—when he accepted John's offer and took off his greatcoat, John knew his instincts were right. Sherlock needed to talk.

"A strop on? I prefer 'brooding,' but an interesting observation, John." Sherlock accepted his cup and followed John to the sitting room. "We've not met up since giving our statements to the police, so you've no proof of its duration."

"Quite. So I'm making an assumption," John settled on the sofa, Sherlock took the chair, "but you had a funny look after we found Agatha Christie and it's still there. I suspect it's been for at least a week. So, you can stop your delaying tactics and answer my question."

"And what makes you think I'm delaying?" Sherlock sat straight-backed on the edge of the seat as he sipped his tea and peered with too-innocent eyes over the rim of his cup.

John's serious scowl and narrowed eyes replied for him.

Sherlock grinned at his friend's clear message, "I've a strop on—as you put it—over the many coincidences in the Agatha Christie case," he answered. "You know my aversion for them."

"Yeah," John shrugged, "except, sometimes things just happen…," he blew at his tea and sipped, "…like how we met."

That memory brought a smile to Sherlock's eyes. "Yes. Neither of us planned that. For the 'Mistress of Misdirection,' however, I can't help but wonder…," There was something akin to admiration in his voice.

"Wait now. Seriously?" John's eyebrows arched with incredulity, "that's what's bothering you, still? You think this was an act, then?"

"Perhaps not a complete act, but there are elements which are puzzling," Sherlock held the tea to his lips, but his brooding over the "puzzling elements" distracted him from sipping.

"Okay," It was John's turn to study his friend, "Enlighten me. What are the puzzling elements?"

His question stimulated Sherlock to list in rapid succession, "The attaché case, her husband's boots, The Guardian, the Neele ID, the housekeeping smock and cap to elude surveillance. The detective was not wrong when he stated that maneuver required planning… and I haven't entirely ruled out the car accident. Yet…"

"Whew, Sherlock. You had me worried there," John gave a dry laugh. "I thought you were really on to something."

Sherlock eyed him. "You disagree."

"Well, for starters, Gerri's diagnosis was spot on," John countered, "Mrs. Christie was suffering from an episode of dissociative amnesia, which often occurs suddenly—in this case, presumably the result of her car crash. She had a loss of autobiographic memory with brief but intermittent episodes of clarity. While this form of amnesia can affect a person for minutes or hours, in this case, Christie's fugue—alternating between prolonged memory loss and brief memory recall—lasted several days. Gerri feels that by the time we located her, she was transitioning from another amnesic state back to her memories. Christie mentioned something about almost remembering things, don't forget. Our rescue operation just helped stabilize her memories."

"That part I'll concede," Sherlock replied, "but to quote medical sources; 'dissociative amnesia is a type of dissociative disorder that involves the inability to recall important personal information that would not typically be lost with ordinary forgetting. It is usually caused by trauma or stress. During the fugue, the distressed person may appear normal and attract no attention…the person may even engage in complex social interactions.'"

"—which the staff at The Guardian confirmed—"

"—So, John, where does it say that the afflicted person acts unhinged, babbling, laughing to oneself as the detectives described? I might grant that the manner in which she feigned this behavior may be an example of engaging 'in complex social interactions,' but it strikes me as deliberate obfuscation, especially as she achieved her intended results—convincing the detectives that she was too 'off her nut' to notice them. It enabled her to slip right by them when she saw opportunity."

"…Yeah, you said that a week ago. She knew she was being watched? Hmmmm," John's forehead furrowed. "A person suffering from amnesia might play it cagey, especially if feeling threatened by strangers—meaning everyone, when you can't remember anyone. She might even try to shake the people perceived as following her. Or maybe, she had briefly recovered her autobiographic memory and didn't want to be found. Either way, I see your point. It could be a deliberate act."

"If we look at it objectively, there are aspects of this disappearance that don't quite fit…." Sherlock's voice trailed and the sudden inward-looking shift of his eyes suggested he was re-analyzing the facts. He remained withdrawn and silent longer than John anticipated.

"And that perspective is…?" John prodded softly.

Sherlock snapped back into focus. "All right. For the sake of argument, I'll concede that not everything was premeditated. It's credible she spaced out while driving and suffered from amnesia during a period after the car accident, but she cleverly seized opportunities—literally handed to her, like that attaché case in her home. To my mind, that may have been the moment when the scheme was first hatched."

"I'd say more like lucky breaks…some of them, anyway," John disputed Sherlock's version. "She couldn't have known her PA would bring her the wrong case."

"Of course not, but once she had it, did it suggest a plan? Keep in mind she remained home for several hours after her domestic with her husband, giving her time to think…to scheme. And we ought not ignore that she used the ID of her husband's lover's sister to twist the knife just a little…"

"No, no, no. You're reading too much into this," John protested, shaking his head. "And you blame me for having a wild imagination? Nancy Neele's sister, Terese, worked at the publishing house. The mix-up happened due to a coincidence—albeit, an extraordinary coincidence. Sorry, Sherlock!"

"It's curious, John, not coincidental," Sherlock insisted, "and as Lord Peter pointed out, she had 'opportunity at a very traumatic moment in her life.'" He counted off his points on his fingers. "She chose her husband's boots over her own, she drove off into the night, and then, oh so conveniently, she found lodgings within walking distance of her accident. She installed herself and waited to see what would develop."

"Oi! That's some perspective, all right. So, let me get this straight. You actually think the accident was faked?"

Sherlock frowned and shook his head, "I'm ambivalent on that point. As I said earlier, she could have spaced out while driving, but I cede it was a daring stunt if deliberate."

"But you think she purposely chose The Guardian?"

Sherlock nodded adamantly, "Ahead of time, yes, although, she wisely didn't make a reservation ahead of time under Neele's name on her mobile or her computer—that would have left a trail. Perhaps she intended to drive there, but then lost control of her car. Either way, she arrived late at night and the less-than-thorough night manager registered her under the false identification she so conveniently provided. It helps that The Guardian is advertised as tech-free environment, an ideal hide-out to shield her from discovery."

"She couldn't have known the night manager would be lax, though," John argued, more with his frown than his voice.

"She used her distress about her muddy boots to misdirect—or redirect—his attention."

"All right…" John was beginning to concede. "And that bit about her footprints…"

"Exactly! It was a brilliant move to make her escape in her husband's boots," Sherlock was now warming to his theory. "While at the Guardian, she misappropriated—purloined days before, it turns out—a housekeeper's bag and conveniently used the uniform it contained as a disguise. We know for a fact that, dressed as a maid, she escaped from her room and then hid in plain sight. The DI and police ran right by her to chase down the bus. After they had gone, she ducked into the sitting room and stuffed her disguise back into the bag—"

"Well, S Miller was the name on the lapel, right? And Miller was her maiden name? Maybe it seemed familiar to her? Maybe she thought the bag was hers…?"

"John!" Sherlock groaned and put down his cup.. "If she believed it was hers, why would she see fit to drop the Neele credit card into the bag?" He got up and paced with his arms behind his back, "No, she was expecting to show proof of her ID!"

"Just saying," John raised his palms defensively, his eyes tracking his pacing friend, "Identity confusion is still on the table. You can't deny she was in some kind of fugue when we encountered her in the sitting room. Her reaction to her husband's voice was not faked. Gerri, Wimsey, and I can attest to her distress and her protective reflex."

Sherlock stopped pacing and turned toward his friend. "We're in agreement there, at least, John. Confronted with an 'imminent threat, for which flight-or-fight is not a viable option to counter danger,' she had a dissociative response and ducked into the safe territory of the sitting room, attempting to sink into anonymity."

"Quoting the DSM-5," John smiled in admiration, "Can see you've done your homework."

"It's aided my understanding, that's all," Sherlock's frowned again and dropped back in his chair.

"Then you believe what we believe," John wondered why Sherlock remained glum. "Agatha Christie was not faking her condition when we found her in the sitting room."

"Like you, I believe we witnessed a genuine episode, that she suffered a series of periodic episodes of memory loss since the accident and throughout her concealment. However, it didn't make her any less perceptive in self-defense, which is what I believe motivated her, but self-defense from what. The question remains, why did she need to disappear?"

"That's what the psychiatric workup will determine," John sighed, "and treatment should address." His lips were set in a grim line, "Either way, it's a bumpy road ahead for the Christie's marriage. Lord Peter was quite upbeat, however. He says she's a very clever lady and that she'll overcome this setback… "

"Wimsey's right. She's quite a clever lady. That's why I can't discount that she evaded the police net," Sherlock hunched forward and clasped his hands together, "not by accident but by premeditated and deliberate manipulation. Whether for revenge, from depression or as an amnesiac, she pulled the wool over the eyes of those looking for her, John." He sat back in the chair, dissatisfied at his conclusions.

"Okay, Sherlock. I have a question for you." John kneaded the stubble on his cheek in thought. "Why? Why do you suspect her of all this? Aren't you the one who originally suggested her behavior was inconsistent at the accident scene, showing a confused state of mind?"

Sherlock nodded tightly. "Evidence at the accident scene led me to believe there was some mental confusion," he locked eyes with John, "but I cannot ignore her parting words to me."

"Oh?" Sherlock's piercing stare made John's spine tingle. He rubbed the back of his neck as if he could massage the sensation away. "I wasn't aware she spoke to you."

The fierce concentration of Sherlock's gaze turned inward as he wrestled with hesitation. The longer Sherlock showed reluctance to speak, the greater John's curiosity grew.

"Go on," John urged, growing impatient.

"I find I cannot silence my suspicions," Sherlock admitted in a low voice, "nor this ongoing debate in my mind."

"Okay," John put his drained cup down on the table and clasped his hands between his knees, unconsciously mirroring Sherlock's pose.

Sherlock inhaled sharply. "It happened when you and Lord Peter were shaking hands; Wimsey had just said… 'what better occupation than to be a sleuth to solve mysteries. Abso-bloody-lutely!' Repeating it now, Sherlock half-smiled at the memory, then finished in complete seriousness, "Agatha Christie used that distraction to whisper for my ears only, 'or to be a writer of mysteries, yes, Mr. Sherlock Holmes?'"

"Huh!" John sat upright in surprise.

"It's not what she said, but how she said it," Sherlock exhaled softly and sat back.

"And you—what?—think it was an admission of guilt?" John blinked, unsettled by Sherlock's revelations.

Sherlock barely nodded to himself. "I've been debating. What else could it be?"

"Odd ramblings, for sure, but hardly damning, that. And it's hard to interpret, especially out of context," John stretched his legs and scratched his nose as if that would relieve his doubts.

"You see my… my dilemma."

"Yes, it's an impression. Not proof."

"Exactly," Sherlock picked up his teacup and studied it as if it was brimming with his misgivings.

"I believe you," John assured him, "because I know you're always right, even if the rest of us can't see it. And I also know that's not good enough."

"Surprisingly, it's helpful," Sherlock's flat tone and his downcast eyes contradicted his reply. "Thank you, John. It'll have to be good enough."

They sat in mutual silence and listened to the hum of the heating unit kicking in, the purr of a quiet household where a child slept, John felt himself succumbing to weariness after his long day in the surgery and his time with Rosie. He yawned and stretched his arms, slouching back on the comfortable sofa trying to stay alert. Raking his fingers through his hair stimulated another thought. "But that's not what's still making you 'brood,' is it?" He cocked his head, "It's that she might have got away with a masterful con."

"Precisely," Sherlock sipped the last of his tea.

"With no one, except you, the wiser?"

"And my silence makes me complicit in her duplicity."

"Hardly that. It's not like she committed a crime, after all. Though, it seems your social consciousness is showing, Sherlock," John sighed, feeling sympathy for his friend. "Don't think you're going to get the proof you need."

"Nor do I think I want it," Sherlock confessed into the cup. "Rather, I salute her cleverness."

"Okay. Can't find fault with that decision," John rubbed his eyes before continuing. "So what do you plan to do about what you think you know?"

"What I know I know," Sherlock corrected, lifting his eyes once more toward John. "Nothing for the present. I'll wait to see if this makes its way into one of her novels."

"Ha! And if it does?" John squinted at his friend in amusement. The man was relentless in searching for answers.

"It will satisfy my curiosity." Sherlock shrugged, feeling the burden of his secret lift with this admission to John.

"Y'know that could take years…?" John tried to mollify him, adding, "or it could be never." He grinned at the next thought. "You plan to read everything she writes?"

"Even works under a pseudonym," Sherlock looked sidelong at John with a mischievous glint, "but as ever, I could use your help."

"Won't be a problem," John chuckled. "I'm already a fan…"

"No surprises there," Sherlock teased, the brooding look he had arrived with now gone, "...fiction's always been your specialty."

"Here we go again," John snorted a laugh, "However, rest assured, Sherlock, I'm not volunteering to read your latest entries in the Science of Deduction anytime soon…that would put me to sleep." The very suggestion made John yawn again.

"I wouldn't expect you to, John," Sherlock shrugged again, unable to contain his delighted grin, "as long as I can still count on you."

"For what?" John didn't need to ask, but he knew it was expected of him.

On cue, Sherlock answered, this time with an incandescent smile; "For your companionship on such cases where you can witness—first hand—the illuminating science of deductions."

"Stimulating prospect!" After John rolled his eyes in feigned dismay, his face mirrored Sherlock's smile. "So, you don't need a new sidekick, then?"

"I prefer my sidekicks, if you choose to call them that, well-seasoned and less loquacious."

"Oh, now I see. Bunter, then?" John quipped, poorly stifling another yawn. "Now, he's got a gift for silence—"

Sherlock shot John an amused glance. "Wimsey's manservant indeed fits that description, though his loyalty is taken. Besides, John, I've no need for sidekicks..." when I've got a friend, he finished in his thoughts. With a dismissive wave, he ended a discussion that was bordering on ridiculous. John had slouched deeper into the sofa, his eyes were appearing glazed with the giddiness of man fighting off sleep.

"I'd best be off, John," Sherlock carried his teacup to the sink. "The hour's late and I have cultures to check at Bart's lab tonight. No need to see me out."

"No, wait, Sherlock!" John jumped up, suddenly wide awake. Sherlock was shrugging into his greatcoat when John caught him up. "What do you plan to tell the Duke about Lord Peter's apprenticeship, then?"

Sherlock whirled to face John as he threaded his scarf, "I will assure Denver that Lord Peter will find his own niche in solving mysteries. Wimsey's up to the task. He should have a bright future." His eyes took on a distant look as if he could actually see that future. "The same goes for Agatha Christie. That, too, will be a wait-and-see." Sherlock shook off his reverie, pulled on one glove, and focused on his friend. "Good night, John," he offered his ungloved hand to shake, "Later, then?"

John returned Sherlock's strong grip and, as whimsy took him, he grinned, "Abso-bloody-lutely!"

88**88

88**88


Author's Notes:

Agatha Christie's disappearance was a true mystery that gripped the British nation for eleven-days in 1926 until she was found at the Swan Hydro, a spa in Harrogate. She checked in under the assumed name of Neele—her husband's mistress—with almost no luggage.

Various newspaper accounts and historical records from that time differ slightly on the intensive search to find her. Some report that the British Home Secretary urged "two of Britain's most famous crime writers, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, and Dorothy L. Sayers, author of the Lord Peter Wimsey series," to help in the search. (Neither author found her. Having become an occultist, AC Doyle took one of Christie's gloves to a medium in a failed attempt at locating her and DL Sayers wrote a story based on her adventure.) Theories still abound on what happened to the famous writer, but when Agatha Christie was found, she had no explanation to satisfy the curious and over her long lifetime never gave an official statement.

For the purposes of this modern adaptation, I have taken many liberties, based upon recent theories. I thought it would be great fun to enlist the genius characters of the famous writers, instead of the writers themselves, and have them working in tandem to locate the missing woman. There are Easter eggs of truth in my "ripped from history" retelling. If you want to spot them, you only need to search for "Agatha Christie's disappearance" to learn more about this fascinating mystery.