Eddie Ricoletti And His Abominable Life



by



Lynn Walker & Carole Manny




* * * * *




Prologue




Eddie Ricoletti sat at the kitchen table, carefully paying the monthly household bills.  He wrote slowly, punctiliously, and kept a meticulous record of each payment as he wrote the cheques.  A calculator helped him ensure accuracy:  He had no confidence in his ability to keep proper records without it.   He reached for the next bill in the small stack, then hesitated when he saw that it was from the orthopaedist.  



Even after all these years his deformity was still a source of shame to Eddie.  The doctors had done their best to correct his feet and had largely succeeded, although there was nothing they could do about the fact that Eddie's parents hadn't sought help for his condition until he was almost a toddler, so his right leg still revealed to a careful observer traces of the club foot he'd been born with.  It was a minor defect, on balance, though he'd never been able to run as fast or to play with the same agility as his schoolmates.  But then, he'd never been as clever as his schoolmates, either.  "Slow in body, slow in mind," his mum used to say, but he firmly believed that she'd meant it kindly, because he knew that she loved him.  



He made out the counterfoil, then painstakingly wrote the cheque for his built-up shoe.  Next was the butcher's bill.  Eddie looked it over, tilting the paper to the light streaming in the kitchen windows.  No charges for knife sharpening this month, but there would certainly be some next time.  Just the usual tab today, though.  As he wrote out the cheque he kept an ear cocked to the basement stairs, where he could hear Alice cleaning up.  Cleaning up his mess, she'd said.  She never seemed angry about it, though.  She just wanted to make sure that he understood that she was doing it for him, and he didn't mind that.  It was how she proved that she loved him.  He liked to have that proof; it made him feel safe.



Alice did lots of things to prove that she loved him, Eddie knew, and he was grateful for all of them.  She looked out for him.  After the fire in Peaslake she'd helped him cope with the business end of things--wills, trusts, financial documents--and although his father had opposed his association with her, his death in the fire had cleared the way for their marriage.  And for this house.  Between the insurance money and his inheritance, Eddie had received enough money to allow their purchase of the home in Maida Vale.  He had loved Peaslake and still missed it.  He missed keeping animals, especially the chickens, but Alice assured him that by budgeting carefully and by taking in lodgers to help with expenses, one day they'd be able to afford a real farm, and then Eddie could keep lots of animals besides just chickens.  Meanwhile, he saw to their tenants, doing his part to make sure that one day he and Alice would have enough money to purchase the farm.



Footsteps on the basement stairs jolted him back to the present.  The basement door opened and Alice appeared.  She went to the sink and washed her hands.  "Almost done with those, luv?" she asked.



"Almost," he said.  



"Well, don't dawdle over it.  You've got your work in the basement, too, you know."



"I know."



"I'll have supper on in just a tick," she said.  "If you hurry about getting that in the post you'll have time for the basement before the food's done."



"I'll hurry," Eddie promised, and he did.  He reached for the next bill.  He wished he'd done the bills in the sitting room.  He couldn't very well delay while Alice was here in the kitchen with him, watching as she saw to supper, but he didn't relish his work in the basement, either.  Still.  There was the farm to think about.  Without his work tending to their lodgers, they would never get back to Peaslake and Eddie would never get his farm.




* * * * *




Saturday  




John looked at his watch--again--and frowned.  Major Peabody was late.  Peabody was never late.  He counted tardiness as the eighth deadly sin.  John got up from his desk and ambled down the hall to the reception desk.  From there he glanced out into the crowded lobby, but no Major did he see.  



"Rebecca," he said to the single receptionist who wasn't on the phone.



Rebecca glanced up at him and cracked her gum.  "Yeah?"



"Have you heard from Major Peabody?  He had an appointment at two."



Rebecca looked at the clock, then back at John.  It was 2:25.  "Huh-uh," she said.



Hm.  Well, could you do me a favor and give him a call, please?  See if maybe he forgot?  Theres still time to see him later today, if he can come in.”  



Yeah, sure,she said, then asked, Do you have his phone number?



John sighed inwardly, but kept his voice pleasant.  It should be in his file,he said.  And then, because with Rebecca hed learned to leave nothing to chance, His file will be in the pending drawer for todays appointments.  Want me to write his name down?”  



Uh...No, that’s okay,” she said.  It was Major Peters?  Yeah?”  



No, Peabody,John said.  He wrote it down anyway, on a sticky note, and handed it to her, wondering how it happened that everyone was so much younger than him these days.  Thanks,he said.  Might as well send the next patient on back,he added, although he was pretty sure that two tasks at a time would overface her.  



A steady stream of patients kept him busy for the next hour and a half, but he took advantage then of a lull in the action to return to the reception desk.   "Any luck getting hold of Major Peabody, Rebecca?" he asked.



"Who?"



"Major Peabody.  You were going to give him a call, see why he missed his appointment?"  He pointed to the sticky note, still attached to the counter over the phone.  "There's the note with his name on it."



She glanced at the note, then remembered.  "Oh, right.  Yeah.  I forgot."  She cracked her gum but made no move toward the phone.  



"Well, could you call him now, please?  I can stick around to see him today, if he can make it."



"Yeah, sure," she said, and he was surprised when a few minutes later there was a tap on his door and she stuck her head in.  "He's off," she said.



"What?"



"That Major guy.  I called that number and the lady that answered the phone said he's off.  Went on a trip to the country, she said."



"The country?"  John was dumbstruck.  "Are you sure?"



Rebecca cracked her gum.  "Uh-huh.  Said he went on a trip to the country and wouldn't be back for a couple of weeks."  



"A couple of weeks?"



"Uh-huh."  She waited while he tried to process that, then said, a little impatiently, "That all?"



"Uh..."  John considered.  "Which number did you call?"



"The one you wrote down."



"You're sure?  There are two numbers in his file.  The one I wrote down is his mobile."



"Yeah, that one.  That's the one I phoned."



"Huh.  Okay.  Yeah, thanks, Rebecca."  She ducked out and John sat frowning.  He was less concerned about someone else answering the Major's phone than he was with the man's health, but wasn't it odd that he'd go on a trip and not take his mobile?  Peabody didn't say anything about a trip the last time he was in the clinic, a month ago.  Not that it was any of John's business, really, but he and the Major often gossiped about family and friends.  Even travel plans, if they had any.  A casual mention by John that he planned to attend a medical conference in Calais had once led to twenty-five minutes of enthusiastic reminiscing about Peabody's stint in France after he returned from Korea.  A weeks'-long visit to the countryside should have merited a mention, and then there was the missed appointment, as well.



At eighty-five Peabody was frail and under the care of a cardiologist for hypertension and the effects of a heart attack suffered three years ago.  He'd made these monthly pilgrimages to the Free Clinic ever since and was absolutely assiduous about keeping appointments and cancelling them.  For the last two years he'd made a point of refusing to see anyone but John, who reported all changes in the Major's health and well-being to the cardiologist.  Between the two of them they'd kept Peabody whole and healthy ever since.  Still, while Peabody's mind was as sharp and as clear as it had ever been, he really shouldn't be traveling in his physical condition.  John knew that he did what he could to remain physically active, but that, according to Peabody, was limited to a half mile out and back walking route each day.



John's concern was personal as well as professional.  Peabody was bright and funny even at his advanced age, and John would have liked him in any case, even if he weren't a veteran with stories about the battles and warfare of the last century.  Sarah Roundhay, John's patient and the Major's daughter, had told John on more than one occasion that her father valued having someone intelligent with whom to socialize and reminisce as much as John did.  He looked forward to seeing the Major because they spent far more time swapping war stories than they did on the exam.  Once John had completed a basic inventory of the Major's health, asked some standard questions, and made his own observations about how well or how poorly he looked, they spent the rest of the time yakking it up.  The receptionists always tried to schedule these appointments toward the end of the day, because John was guaranteed to run late whenever the Major came by.



John tapped at his computer, pulled up Peabody's file, and dialed the number of his cardiologist.  "Stan," he said when he'd been connected.  "John Watson.  Good.  Yeah.  You?  Listen, got a question for you about a patient.  Arthur Peabody.  Yeah.  Have you seen him recently?  So you haven't heard anything about him taking a trip for a couple of weeks?  He didn't call and get clearance for that?  Huh.  No, I--he missed his regular appointment at the clinic this afternoon, and when the receptionist called the house his landlady said he'd gone on holiday in the country for a few weeks.  Yeah, I know.  That's what I thought:  No traveling.  Okay.  Yeah, I'll let you know if I find out anything.  Sure.  Take care."



John sat back, tapping his pen on the desk.  The Major was a charming old guy, though stubborn, he reflected.  If he thought that his doctors would veto a planned trip he might 'forget' to include them in his plans, but he was usually quite conscientious about following their instructions to the letter, on the grounds that he wanted to live forever.



He wrote down the Major's address and slipped it into his pocket.  He probably wouldn't need it, but he thought that if he didn't hear from Peabody before quitting time he might swing by to see the landlady personally.  It wouldn't be out of his way by more than a half mile or so.  Two patients later he was free for the day.  He wheeled his bicycle out of the office, asked one more time for news of the Major, then said a general goodnight to the staff and exited out the back of the clinic.



There he paused to strap on his helmet, smiling as he remembered Sherlock's reaction when he first spied the thing.  Sherlock had a somewhat anomalous but perfectly functional sense of humour, a fact that would surprise most people who weren't John, but even so he didn't outright laugh all that much.  The helmet's debut provided a notable exception.  When he'd caught his breath and wiped his eyes he informed John that he looked as though 'he ought be queueing for the short bus.'  "Shall I buy you velcro strap trainers for Christmas?" he'd asked.  "Or clips to fasten your mittens to your sleeves?"



"Bite me, Holmes," John had replied good-naturedly, provoking another gale of laughter.



Better to look simple than be simple, Sherlock had eventually decided, and ultimately gave his blessing to John's 'lid,' as he called it.  John grinned at the recollection, but soon the fraction of his concentration that wasn't taken up with navigating Saturday evening traffic returned to the question of Major Peabody.



He probably should have called Mrs. Roundhay, he thought, and asked her about the Major's travel plans, but the clinic was always swamped on Saturdays and he hadn't thought of it until now.  Well, he'd give her a call once he got home.  As he stopped to wait for the light at the intersection of the A41 and Grove End Road, he impulsively made the right rather than continuing straight on for Baker Street, and rode the half mile west to Maida Vale.  



A solidly middle-class neighbourhood just a few decades earlier, Maida Vale had benefited in recent years from investors who bought homes there hoping to upgrade and resell the places for a profit, and property values had soared.  As a retired soldier on a fixed and limited income, Peabody had been pleased to find a place that offered steep discounts to seniors and retired service members.  



Number ninety-eight Randolph Avenue was a tidy, well-maintained stucco affair, one of the few free-standing homes on the street, most of which was lined with three- and four-storey, multi-unit brownstones.  It was unusual, too, in that the ground floor was actually at ground level:  No stairs to negotiate.  John knew from conversations with the Major that this in addition to the low rent had been important factors when he chose the place.  Also unlike the brownstones, number ninety-eight had a short, brick-paved driveway with parking space for two vehicles, although it stood empty now.  A variety of ornamental perennial grasses and lavender made a minimalist but attractive landscape.  



John leant the bicycle against the low brick wall separating the drive from the front garden and rang the doorbell.  Heavy footfalls inside, a door slammed, and the footsteps approached the front door.  At last the door opened and a waft of Dettol accompanied the appearance of a tall, heavyset man with thick, coarse features and sparse, oily black hair.  His right cheek bore what looked like a fresh bruise, John noticed, as the man regarded him warily.  "Hello?" the man said.



John gave him Doctor Watson's Patented 100% Guaranteed Reassuring Smile.  "Hello.  Yes," he said brightly.  "I'm looking for Arthur Peabody.  Is he in?"



The man considered him, then glanced back over his shoulder into the house before refocusing on John.  His small eyes narrowed suspiciously.  "Who are you?"



John kept his voice pleasant.  "Just a friend," he said.  "Is he in?"



The man glanced over his shoulder again and shifted his feet.  Nervous, John would have sworn.  "No," he said finally.  



"Ah," John said.  "Well, that's disappointing.  We were supposed to meet earlier today.  Do you know when he'll be back?"



This was apparently a more difficult question than John had intended to ask.  The man looked down at his feet, shuffled them indecisively, as though thinking wasn't made easy for him through practice.  John was about to repeat the question when the man said, "He's gone to the seaside."



John blinked.  "What?"



"He's gone to the seaside," the man repeated, with slightly more confidence.  "Yeah.  He said he'd be gone for a couple of weeks."



"Well...When did he leave?"



This resulted in more shuffling, more glancing back into the house, before the man came out with, "A couple of days ago.  I'm not sure.  Last week."



"A couple of days ago or last week?" John asked skeptically.  He tried to see past the guy but the man was quite big:  His bulk filled the doorframe and he'd only just stuck his head out in any case.  John tried to casually shift to his left, to get a better look inside, but it was not a very successful maneuver and what he could see was unremarkable.  Just an ordinary sitting room.  "Did he leave any forwarding address of where he'd be staying?"



"He stays here," the man said.



No, I mean at the seaside.  Did he leave any information about where hed be staying when he went there?  Like a hotel, or an inn or something?



The questions seemed to be making the guy increasingly nervous, and again he glanced back into the house before answering.  "He went to the seaside for a couple of weeks," he repeated.



John frowned.  "Yeah, that's...That's what you said.  Listen, I don't mean to be out of line or anything, but do you think I could come in and look at his room?  I really need to get in touch with him, and maybe he left a note about where he'd be.  Maybe something written down in his calendar.  Would that be okay?"  



John saw at once that he'd provided a few too many questions for the man to process all at once.  Nice job, Doctor Hamfist, he told himself irritably.



"You can't come into the house," the man decided finally.  "It's not safe to let strangers into the house."



"Yeah," John said.  "Good policy."  Rebecca said that the landlady told her that the Major was going to the country.  Country.  Seaside.  Not really the same thing at all, although at a stretch the terms could be used interchangeably, John supposed, and then, too, Rebecca was no prodigy.  She could easily have misunderstood or misinterpreted what the woman told her.  "Is the landlady in?" he asked.  "Could I speak with her?"



"She's busy," the man said, and now he actually looked not just nervous but almost afraid.  Another glance back into the house.  "She can't come to the door now.  You can't come into the house.  It's not safe to let strangers into the house."  



This was going nowhere.  "Okay.  Well, thanks.  I guess," John said, although the door had already closed.



He turned away and stood on the front step, thinking.  Maybe the Major's daughter had some answers.  Information connected the call and he sat on the low brick wall next to the bicycle.  Mrs. Roundhay answered on the third ring.



"Hello?"



"Yes, hello.  Mrs. Roundhay.  This is John Watson.  Sorry to bother you--"



"Doctor Watson," she cried, sounding pleased.  "What a surprise.  How are you?"



"Good.  I'm good.  Actually, I'm calling about your dad.  Is he with you?"



"Dad?  No."  Now she sounded worried.  "Why?  What's wrong?  Has something happened?"



"Well, I'm not sure.  He missed an appointment at the clinic this afternoon and when he didn't come in I had the staff give him a call.  His landlady answered and said he'd gone to the country for a couple of weeks."



What?



Yeah, that was kind of my reaction, but I wanted to ask:  Did he say anything to you about leaving town?



No,” she said firmly, he didnt.  Thats so...He doesnt know anyone in the country.’  All his friends are gone, you know.



Yeah...He wouldnt have, I dont know, met someone on line?  Gone to see them in person?



No,” she said.  He doesnt like computers.  I keep trying to get him to email me once a day so I know hes okay--you know, just when he gets up in the morning or right before bed--but he just uses that laptop I gave him like a paperweight.



Well, I stopped by his address on the way home from the clinic.  Im there now.  The landlord said he went to the seaside--



The seaside?  Or the country?



He said seaside.  Whoever the receptionist talked to earlier said country.



Thats very strange.



Yeah, I thought so.  Well, I wanted to check with you first, to see if you knew anything about him taking a trip.



No, definitely not.



What about the people who own this house?  The place where he rooms.  Do you know them?



The Ricolettis?  Not very well.  A husband and wife named Eddie and Alice.  Of course I met them when we moved his things in there, but he just lives there, you know.  I mean he doesnt really depend on them for much.  He gets his own meals and doesnt need any help taking care of himself, really.  Theyre just landlords, not caretakers.  You know.



Yeah.”



Theyre kind of weird, if you ask me,she added.  But then, I dont have to live there, and he doesnt seem to mind.  He likes to be in the middle of everything, right there in the city, and its a good location.  Safe neighborhood and everything.  He doesnt complain about them and seems happy there.  Are you sure the person you talked to was the landlord?"



Tall guy.  Six-two, maybe?  Six-three?  Black hair.  Not fat, exactly, but big and beefy.  Hasn't shampooed in a week."



That's him."



Has your dad ever said anything that would make you think that he had problems with the guy, at all?



No, nothing.  Well, there was that one thing about the other lodger whos there, but thats not really a problem Dad has with them.



How do you mean?



The other guy who lives there.  Brian Teddington.  Dad always calls him Teddy.  A while ago he said that the landlord was trying to get Teddy to give him power of attorney.  Told him it would make it easier to keep track of Teddys expenses and pay the bills and things, and Teddy wouldnt have to bother with anything any more.  Dad said it was a terrible idea and he told Teddy that, but I dont know what ever came of it.  Probably nothing, because he hasnt said anything about it since.



Did they ask your dad to sign over his affairs to them, too?John asked.



She laughed.  Well, if they did they would have gotten an earful.  You know how he is.



John smiled.  Yeah, I do.



He’d never do that, Doctor Watson.  Never.  He wont even let me pay his bills and keep his accounts, although I can manage the bakery well enough.  He always has to be in control of himself.  And preferably of everything going on around him, if he can arrange it.



I know someone like that.



If I cant get hold of him, what should I do?  Do you think I should call the police?



John replied with a question of his own.  When was the last time you heard from him?



Last night.   Around eight, I think.  He phoned to ask if the kids would like pizza Sunday night, because he had some coupons for a place near here.



That doesnt sound like he was planning to take a trip anywhere.  Do you know for certain that he was here--I mean, in Maida Vale--when he called?



Well...No.  He used his mobile and the number came up on mine, of course, so I know that much, but...”  John waited while she mentally reviewed the conversation.  You know what?she said after a moment.  I heard him say good night to Teddy, now that I think of it.  So yes:  I know he was there when he called.



John considered.  The more questions he asked the less sense the answers made, and he disliked that on principle, but at the moment he was more concerned about the Major's mental health than his physical well-being.  Peabody was exceptionally lucid for his age--for any age--but decline was almost inevitable, and just because he'd never displayed erratic behavior before didn't mean that it couldn't develop.



"Well," he said, "if you can't reach him by phone in the next couple of hours, I'd say it wouldn't hurt to call someone.  I know he's still sharp as a tack, but when people decline there's always a first instance where you notice it, and maybe this is it.  Give it a couple of hours and then if you don't make contact try the Missing Persons Bureau.  They can take the information and give you advice on what to do next, and they work with the cops, although they aren't actually the police.  Meanwhile, if you do hear from him, let me know, will you?  Call any time."



I will.



Promise?  Don’t worry about what time it is.  Ill keep the phone on.




* * * * *



John gave the matter more thought as he rode home, and by the time hed wrestled the bicycle through the alcove and into the foyer the landlord's shifty attitude, the conflicting answers about whether Peabody had gone to the seaside or the country and when, all arrayed against the Major's scrupulous punctuality and failure to mention anything about a trip, combined to make him very suspicious, if not alarmed, about the information he'd been given.  He'd also formulated a course of action, or at least a starting point, although probably by the time he got well into it Mrs. Roundhay would call with the news that her dad had phoned back and was fine.  He leant the bicycle against the wall, then pulled out his phone and texted Mycroft.



Need access code 2 Natl Rail station video.  Also Tube code.  ASAP.  Thx.  JW



He sent the message and climbed the stairs to the flat, where he found Sherlock standing on the coffee table, glaring at the wall behind the sofa.  Clearly his Saturday had been as busy as John's, and, just as clearly, he was absorbed in a new case.  He stood on the table, right elbow cupped in his left hand, chewing on his thumbnail and twitching his little finger.  The wall, clean when John left that morning, was now covered with documents, photographs, newspaper clippings, and what looked like a key to a train depot locker.  Yarn in a variety of colours ran from one pinned item to another, providing visual links to related pieces.  John had bought Sherlock a wide cork board a year ago in a last-ditch effort to spare the wallpaper, but the board was already full and the notes and articles had broken free of its confines and spread across the wall in every direction like invasive weeds.  



Sherlock gave no sign that he'd heard John's return, but that meant little.  He could filter out everything short of a nuclear blast when he chose to focus on something more interesting, but he was also capable of noticing the most minute details while appearing to be utterly lost in thought.



John shrugged out of his coat and hung it behind the door, then washed his hands in the kitchen.  As he was drying them the phone chimed.  Mycroft, replying to his text.  



Sherlocks timing is quite poor.  I’m busy.  MH



Dammit,John said in an undertone, and typed a response.  



It’s not Sherlocks request.  Its mine.  JW



John stared at the phone as he waited, picturing Mycroft reading the text, rolling his eyes, and composing a snotty reply.  Right on time, it arrived.



Then your timing is quite poor.   MH



Bastard,” John muttered, glaring at the phone.  



Not cooperating?Sherlocks voice came from behind his right shoulder, making him jump.



"Simple bloody request," he said discontentedly, then blinked.  "I thought you were busy."



Sherlock reached into his breast pocket and pulled out his own phone.  "I am.  But I can always make time to piss off my brother."



How did I know that the next call would be from you?Mycroft sighed resignedly when he picked up.  



Learning curve finally flexing up?Sherlock said.  John needs those access codes.



Why?



Not relevant."



It certainly is relevant,” Mycroft replied.  “I’m very busy right now, Sherlock.



Yes, busy manipulating the Danish prime minister into a heating oil treaty with Brazil.  How very crucial.



How do you--Mycroft began, surprised out of his usual discretion, and Sherlock smirked.  I dont have time for this,Mycroft said tersely.



Make some.



Or what?



Or the Danish embassy will very shortly receive an indiscreet email mistakenly sent from your office which will result in the severing of diplomatic relations between Denmark and England for the next thirty years.



You wouldnt dare.



Try me.”  Sherlock savored his brother's silent fuming for a moment, then said, Mycroft, in the time its taken you to whinge about how busy you are you could have sent that code ten times over by now.



I dont have time to mop up after you two again,Mycroft growled.  Tell me why you want the information.



It’s not me whos asking, Mycroft,Sherlock snapped back.  “It’s John.  He’s helped you often enough.



Meaning you dont know why he wants it.



Meaning I dont care.  But I should think its a fair exchange just for all the times youve bundled him into a limousine against his will.



No answer.



Mycroft?  My--”  Sherlock glanced at the phone and realized that Mycroft had rung off.  His face took on a shrewish expression.  "Okay then.  Emailing the Danish embassy it is."  But just as he tapped to wake up his laptop John's text alert chimed.



"That's it," John said, reading the message.  "He came through."



Sherlock sniffed.  "Technically, I did."



"Technically, you're right.  Thanks."



"Mm.  What do you need the codes for?"



"Lost a patient today.  No--I don't mean he died," John said.  "Sorry.  I mean literally lost him.  Was supposed to be in for a two o'clock but never showed up."



"And that requires obligating yourself to Mycroft because...?"



"Because it's Major Peabody."



Clearly the name meant nothing to Sherlock.



"Peabody.  Sarah Roundhay's dad.  I've told you about him."  Nothing.  "You remember Mrs. Roundhay."



Obviously not.



John sighed.  "Six months ago.  The case with the twins?  'Fratricidal symmetry'?"



That instantly produced a fond smile as Sherlock recalled the case.



"She lived next door to the victims.  Came out to talk when we were there."



"The City bookkeeper with a green budgerigar and a crush on you."



"She doesn't have a--look, whatever.  Anyway, it's her dad."



"You think her father is missing and you want to check the trains.  Why?"



John sighed.  "The clinic receptionist called to remind him of the appointment.  Called his mobile.  The landlady picked up and said he'd gone to the country for a few weeks.  On my way home I stopped by--he's got a room up in Maida Vale, on Randolph--and the landlord said he'd gone to the shore.  He was all over the map about when, too:  A couple of days ago, last week.  Wouldn't let me in the house to see the Major's room, and when I called Mrs. Roundhay she said she'd never heard anything about any trip.  The guy's eighty-five years old and with his health he really shouldn't be going on a crosstown bus, much less on an excursion like that."



"The landlady answered his mobile?  Are you sure?"



"That's what the receptionist said.  I suppose there's a chance that she got it wrong.  She's not the sharpest crayon in the box and there are two numbers in the file.  One for his mobile and one for the rooming house where he lives.  But she says she called the number I gave her, and I gave her his mobile.  I'm sure of it."



"So because he didn't answer his phone three hours ago you now want to review the surveillance footage of the entire railway to see if you can spot him at a depot."



John had never thought his plan was the greatest idea he'd ever conceived, but when Sherlock distilled it into those bald terms it sounded even worse.  "Well, yeah.  The ones to the coast, anyway."



"John, there are over eleven thousand miles of coastline in this country.  Exactly which trains do you want to check?"



"All of them," John said, a note of defensiveness creeping in.



Sherlock looked at him like he questioned his sanity.  "You're going to look for a single elderly man on all those trains based on the word of a dim receptionist who might or might not have called the correct number.  You don't know for sure what his destination was--coast or country--even if that information were true, which it's probably not.  'Country' itself could mean virtually anywhere in Britain that isn't London.  Considering the wide variance in his answers, any date that the landlord gave you is probably a lie, so even if he did take a trip you don't know when he left and you'd do just as well picking a date completely at random.   If in fact the landlady did pick up his mobile this afternoon it suggests that he hasn't left home at all, since even old people rarely go out without their phones these days.  You'd be starting a very time-consuming and probably pointless search completely at random."



"No," John said confidently, "Mrs. Roundhay talked to him last night at eight and heard him wish the other lodger who lives there good night, so he was definitely home last night."



"Oh, well, that's much better," Sherlock said sarcastically.  "Now you only have to search every train leaving a London station between eight last night and two this afternoon."



"Fine," John said impatiently.  "So I'll start at two and work back the other direction, and I'll start with the ones closest to his home and work out.  What do you care, anyway?  It's my time to waste.  I'm not asking you to look.  Go back to what you were doing."



Sherlock eyed him warily, but John didn't play passive-aggressive games:  If he wanted help he'd ask for it.  Sherlock decided to consider himself dismissed.  He settled on "Hm" as a parting shot and climbed back up on the coffee table to contemplate the wall.




* * * * *



Sunday




Sherlock slipped in the front door at 5:47 the next morning after a long but satisfying night chasing after information.  Sleep was the last thing on his mind.  These rambles invariably left him feeling energized and alert, alive to London's rhythms and a part of the ancient city.  After the cool, bracing night air the atmosphere of the flat felt positively stale, but John objected vociferously to his leaving the windows open on these frosty mornings, so he resigned himself to the annoyance--admittedly minor, especially when his night had been so productive.



The scent of coffee reached him:  John, already up.  That conclusion didn't survive the first sight of his flatmate, however.  He was where Sherlock had left him at nearly eleven last night, at the living room table, still doggedly persevering with the train security footage but now looking tired and discouraged.  Sherlock found that lack of sleep gave him a sharper edge, but he knew that most people were not like that.  John was definitely not like that.



He hung his coat behind the door and stopped in the kitchen to sniff and then reject the dregs of the coffee.  He poured it out, started a new pot, and rummaged the drawers until he found an unopened package of ginger nuts, nine of which he devoured with avidity while the coffee brewed.  He poured two cups and set one before John.



John sat back in the chair and rubbed his eyes.  "Thanks," he said.



"Does Peabody have credit cards?" Sherlock asked, brushing crumbs from his suit.



John blinked in surprise.  "Uh...I don't know.  I imagine so, but I wouldn't swear to it.  Why?"



"Because we might be able to use the transaction records to put a pattern together.  See where he goes, what he does, whether he's broken the pattern."



John stared at him.  "I thought you had a case."



"It can wait."



"'It can wait'?"



Sherlock shrugged.  "Why is that so hard to believe?  It's at a point where I can leave it for now.  Unless you'd rather I didn't."



No,” John said.  Some help would be great.”  He gestured at the laptop.  This is going nowhere--like you said it would, okay?" he added, as Sherlock opened his mouth to say, 'I told you so.'  "Assuming he does have cards," he went on, "how would we access the records?  We'd need the police to get a warrant for that, yeah?"



"If we involve the police.  What about the bookkeeper?  Would she have access to his financial transactions?"



"I don't know.  Maybe.  He's a pretty independent guy and likes to keep control of that kind of thing, she said, but maybe."



"Why did that come up in conversation?"



"What, that he's independent about his finances?"



"Mm," Sherlock said, and sipped his coffee.



"Uh..."  John had been up all night; it took him a minute to recall the course of the conversation.  "I asked her about his relationship with the landlords, whether he had any complaints, stuff like that.  She said the only thing he ever mentioned to her was about the other lodger, Teddy something, being pressured by the landlord to give him power of attorney.  The landlord tried to sell it as a more streamlined approach, easier for Teddy, but the Major thought it was a terrible idea."



"Quite right."



"Yeah.  I guess he advised Teddy against it, but that's all she said about it.  Said he hasn't brought it up again since."



Sherlock looked thoughtful.  "Nothing new under the sun," he said to himself.



How do you mean?



Elderly tenant, probably alone in the world, no surviving relatives...Red meat for a con man.



The Majors not alone.  Hes got family.   Theyre close.  He sees them all the time.  Oh--Teddy, you mean?



Yes.



You think the landlords angling to take control of Teddys money?



I think someone in that position is a prime target for con artists," Sherlock said.  "I think the idea that a frail, elderly man with close family ties and a heart condition decided to take an unannounced solo trip to the shore is insupportable, whereas theres at least the opportunity for and the suggestion of trouble closer to home.



John looked at his watch.  "It's too early to call Mrs. Roundhay," he said.  "Let me give her another hour or so."



"Ask her for the other tenant's name," Sherlock said.



By the time John called Mrs. Roundhay at 7:15 he found her thoroughly distraught.  She'd evidently spent a sleepless night herself, and she answered on the first ring.  John took pains to assure her than he'd not received news, good or bad, about the Major, and that the failure of any hospitals to notify her that he'd been admitted was probably a good sign that at least he hadn't been in an accident.  She trusted John and knew what Sherlock did, so she was quite willing to provide them with the password for her father's credit card account, and knowing that the famous detective was involved in the search helped restore a fraction of her equilibrium.



Username and password,John said, handing Sherlock the scrap of notepaper.  She says he doesnt go to a lot of different places.  Takes a mile walk every day, stops for a bite afterward.  Other than that and taking her and the kids to dinner on Sundays he sticks pretty close to home.  Reads a lot.  Goes to the library every couple of weeks.  Oh, and the other tenant is Brian Teddington."



Sherlock dismissed the library with a wave of his hand.  Thats too random for our purposes,he said as he accessed the account.  We need a pattern.”  Once he was in he said, Grab a calendar.  Write this down,and beginning two months prior to Peabodys disappearance he read off each purchase while John made the notations on the calendar.



The sought-after pattern emerged immediately.  Aside from treating his family to dinner each Sunday afternoon, the Major made a daily habit of stopping at a sandwich shop very near his room on Randolph.  These were his only regularly recurring purchases, with the very few others being random trips to the grocer, never for amounts of more than £30.  The most recent purchase on the card was a transaction at the sandwich shop at 1:37 Friday afternoon, but nothing on Saturday, which broke the otherwise unvarying pattern of the Majors days.



What do you think?John asked.  



Well start with the shop,Sherlock said, and then I wouldnt mind meeting the landlord myself.



* * * * *



The Satara Sandwich Shop stood at the corner of Sutherland and Lanark behind an Esso Express not a tenth of a mile from the Majors rooms.  The owner of Satara, a third-generation Bangladeshi, was busy but happy to talk to Sherlock and John about the Major, one of his favorite customers and an unvarying regular.



We missed him yesterday,Mr. Patial said.  Every day Major Peabody stops here.  Every day he buys the same thing:  Roast beef on rye with horseradish sauce, vinegar crisps, and coffee.



"Heart patient?" Sherlock said, and John frowned.



"I hope the Major is okay?" Patial asked.  "Nothing has happened to him?"



"We're not sure," John admitted.  "He missed an appointment yesterday and his daughter's concerned so we said we'd look into it."  Close enough.



"Well, no one ever came round to ask about the other lodgers," Patial said, "so that's something in his favor, eh?  If he were in hospital or dead, God forbid, you wouldn't be here asking about him, would you?"



"Other lodgers?" John said.



"Oh, yes," Patial said.  "There have been other old gentlemen staying with the Ricolettis the last few years who would come in once in a while.  Not as regular as the Major.  The Ricolettis take in retirees, you know, and give them a break on the rent.  Nice of them.  It's getting expensive in this neighbourhood, and it's nice they keep letting old folks stay with them.  But you know how it is:  After a while you realize that you haven't seen someone recently, and then you never do see them again.  I just assume that they've moved out or passed away."



"But the Major comes here every day," John said.  "Does he ever say anything about having problems with the landlord?  Anything like that?"



"No.  No, I've never heard him complain.  He always seems very happy, you know.  Kind of quiet, but always has a smile.  Always polite.  Honest, too.  Won't take any favors, even after he did me that good turn last year."



"What kind of good turn?" John asked.



I found out that my cashier was stealing from the store,Patial said.  All thanks to Major Peabody.  He was waiting his turn in line and the cashier gave the woman ahead of him change for ten pounds.  She insisted that she paid with a twenty.  The Major agreed and said yes, she definitely paid with a twenty, and suggested that we look at the surveillance video.  The camera was pointed at the counter to stop people stealing crisps, but you could see she took a twenty from her purse.  After that I put a pinhole camera in the ceiling over the register, too, and a week later caught the clerk stealing money straight from the machine.  Never would have found out about it if Major Peabody hadnt stepped in to help the lady who was here.  I told him he could have free sandwiches for life, but he wouldn't hear of it."  Patial paused.  "I hope you find him safe," he added.



We do, too,John said.  He glanced at Sherlock.  "Anything else?"



Sherlock shook his head.



Thank you, Mr. Patial,John said.  Well let you get back to work.  Ricoletti house next?" he asked, when they were back outside.



"Mm," Sherlock said, and they set off.



 



* * * * *



As he had when John called on Saturday, Eddie Ricoletti answered the door, and as he had before, he stuck his head out the gap while managing to block the rest of the doorway with his bulk.  He was drying his hands on a dish towel as he opened the door, then stood there twisting it nervously, keeping the door braced against his right foot.  John caught a whiff of Dettol again and thought that the bruise on Ricoletti's face looked darker and less red today.



Ricoletti eyed them both suspiciously and if he recognized John he gave no sign.  "Hello?" he said warily.



"Yes, hello," John said.  "I'm sorry to bother you again.  I was here yesterday.  I'm a friend of Major Peabody's.  Is he in?"



"Major Peabody went to the seashore."  Apparently repetition made Ricoletti more confident in the story.  "For a couple of weeks."



"Bit cold for that, isn't it?" Sherlock said in a conversational tone.



Ricoletti stared heavily at him.  "He's at the seashore," he said again.



As was the case a day earlier John couldn't see much past Ricoletti, but Sherlock, being taller, had an advantage, and he raised himself up on his toes, craning past Ricoletti's shoulder.



Ricoletti scowled at him.  "What are you doing?"



"Looking for Major Peabody," Sherlock said.



"He's not here."



"Ah.  And will he be back from the country soon?"



"I don't know."



"What about Teddy?" Sherlock asked.  "Is he in?"



"He's not here."



"At the seashore as well, is he?" Sherlock said.



"No," Ricoletti replied.  "He's visiting friends.  In the country."



"How long was Peabody your lodger?" Sherlock asked.



"Since last year," Ricoletti said.  "In March."



I see.  Well, we wont waste any more of your time, Mr. Ricoletti.  Come on, John.




* * * * *




Sherlock stopped on the pavement in front of the house.  "Is Peabody left-handed?"



The question surprised John, but he happened to have a ready answer because he was left-handed himself, and it was one more thing that he and the Major had exclaimed over as having in common.  "Yeah, he is," he said.  "How do you know that?"



"That bruise on the right side of Ricoletti's face."



"Yeah?"



Sherlock frowned.  "I know you were up all night, John, but--"



"Oh, what, you think Peabody slugged him?  Why would he do that?"



"No data," Sherlock replied.  "It was just an observation.  And in spite of the sleep deprivation I hope you noticed that after Ricoletti claimed that Peabody went to the shore he didn't correct me when I said 'country,' a few seconds later."



"Uh...Of course," John said.  Sherlock eyed him skeptically, but his attention was drawn then to the home of the Ricolettis' neighbour to the north, and following his gaze John saw a woman peering out at them from behind a lace curtain.  



A middle-aged woman in a track suit and trainers answered the door when they rang, and John saw at once that the trainers and track suit were a fashion statement that had never seen the inside of a gym.  Tucked under her left arm the woman held a tiny, amorphous white dog with a pushed-in face and a braided forelock tied with a powder blue satin bow.



Yes?” she said, a bit warily.



Sherlock at once favored her with his most idiot smile.  "Yes, hello, I--Oh, what an adorable puppy," he exclaimed, feigning to catch sight of it.  "May I?"



The woman smiled in spite of herself.  "Of course," she simpered.  "Mind your manners now, Eensy."  She held the dog out and Sherlock chucked it under the chin as it wriggled delightedly.  "His name's not really Eensy," she said, "but we call him that.  Because he's so eensy weensy."



"Adorable," Sherlock said again, still with the insipid grin.  "Don't worry," he added, "we're not selling anything.  My name is Gabe Lestrade, and I'm looking for a lease arrangement for my father.  I understand your neighbours have a vacancy, and I was wondering whether they'd be a suitable arrangement for him.  Would you mind very much if I asked you a few questions about them?"



Theres another vacancy?  Already?



Why, have they just taken someone on recently?"



Oh, I dont know.  I hadnt heard that, but...Sometimes the tenants just up and take off, you know.  One day you see them about, and the next day they move on.  Or pass on, if you know what I mean.  Sorry.  But all of the lodgers that Ive met have been elderly gentlemen, so I suppose its inevitable.  Sad, though.



Of course,Sherlock said.  Is the landlord a nice person, then?  He seemed a bit shy.



Eddie?  Well...I hardly ever see him, really," she said.  "He doesnt go out much.  I suppose he is a bit shy, usually, you know.  Quiet.  Sort of like a big kid, I suppose youd say.  But thats just an impression.  I dont really know him very well except to say hello.  Sometimes Ill see him putting the bins out, but mostly he stays indoors.  Might go up the way and take stuff to the butcher shop every so often.  He usually doesn't go out unless Alice goes.  His wife.”  



"They go out together?  A close couple, are they?"



"Well, no, actually.  Now that you mention it, except for the butcher or Esso he doesn't usually go out unless she's gone to do the shopping."  She drops her voice to a not very quiet whisper.  I think hes not all there,she confided.



And the landlady?Sherlock asked.  "Alice?"



"Well, she's a little butch if you ask me, but to each his own.  Not one to stop and chat, but shell say hello.  She doesnt go out much, either, except for the shopping.  Every so often she heads out lugging a couple of carrier bags up to the Tube station and comes home at the end of the day with them crammed full of shopping.  Says she likes to get away from the city noise and crowds.  You know.  Does her shopping in the country, I guess.  I think that's where they're from originally.  Seems like too much work to me, when everything's so close around here, but to each his own, that's my philosophy."



"And how often would you say she goes on these shopping trips?"



"Oh...I suppose...Every few months, maybe?"



Sherlock had kept the simple smile plastered on his face throughout, and now he gave the dog another pat on the head.  Well, have a nice day, Eensy,he said, then addressed the woman again.  Thank you so much for your time.



* * * * *




You know, its scary how easily you can lie,John said as they walked up the street to the butcher shop.



Would you rather I didnt?



John sighed.  Context is everything, Sherlock.  I want to find the Major.



Just two customers occupied the butcher shop at that early hour.  Sherlock asked to speak to the manager and the counter clerk gave a shout into the back.  A short, spherical man with grey hair stumped out, wiping his hands on his bloody apron.



Help you gents?he asked brusquely.



Lestrade.  Scotland Yard,Sherlock said, with a sketchy show of the DIs badge.  I want to ask you a few questions about Eddie Ricoletti.



What about him?



He’s a customer of yours, then?



Yeah.  Him and his wife.



How often?



I dont know.  I dont keep track.



Estimate.



Every couple of weeks, I suppose,the butcher said.  "Eddie likes hamburgers, so they usually get a kilo or so of ground beef.



They do more than buy ground beef here,Sherlock said.  What else?



Well, every few months theyll bring in some knives for sharpening.  Why?



I’m asking the questions,Sherlock replied.  What sort of knives?



All sorts,the butcher said.  Paring, carving, boning, butcher, chefs, kitchen, couple of cleavers, I guess.  The usual.



Boning knife,Sherlock said.  Flexible or stiff?



Stiff.  Why?



How often do they bring the knives in?



I dont know,the man said petulantly.  I dont keep track.  I told you.



But you keep records.  Either remember quickly or Ill turn your office upside down and find them myself.



It depends,the butcher said sullenly.  Sometimes he doesn't bring them for six months.  Sometimes he comes by every six or eight weeks.  Hey, I got a business to run.  Are we done here?



Your au pair is stealing your silverware,Sherlock said, to the butcher's astonishment.  “I’d keep an eye on her if I were you.



What did that prove?John asked when they were back outside.



Not sure yet,Sherlock said.



Well...John looked up and down the street.  Do you want to do any more asking around here?



No.



Any theories?



Yes.



Share?”



No.



Sherlock--



You know my methods, John.  Theres nothing solid yet.  When there is...



I’ll be the last to know.



Reproach.  Thats not fair.



John took a deep breath, let it out.  What the hell is going on here, Sherlock?



We need more data.



So shouldnt we look around here a bit more?



For what?



I dont know.  People who know the Major, people who know the Ricolettis?



And what will they tell us?



How should I know?John cried.  If I knew that I wouldnt have suggested it.  Couldnt we...I dont know...wait for Ricoletti to go out?  Follow him?



To what end?



"I don't know!" John shouted.  He was just about tired of having everything he proposed shot down, and although Sherlock had volunteered to help it didn't seem to John that he was very invested in doing so.  "We're supposed to be looking for Peabody and all we've done so far is push a butcher around and coo over a dog."



Sherlock didn't shout back.  As often happened, he seemed not even to register John's bad temper.  "What do you want to do, John?" he asked in a sensible tone.  "Do you want to go house to house looking for your friend?  There's nothing more to be done until we have more information, and the information we need is not here."



"Then where the hell is it?"



Baker Street.”



* * * * *




What we need,Sherlock said as they reached their landing, is a record of who the other tenants were and what happened to them, starting with Brian Teddington, the most recent.



Yeah, okay,” John agreed.  The General Register Office, then?  Hang on.”  He opened his laptop and after a few minutes of searching said, Born February 1932.  No date of death listed.  Address of record is the Maida Vale house.



What about the rest of them?  Search backwards, from the address.  That should produce a list of everyone whos lived there.  Once you have the names, see if they have any subsequent addresses listed.



Seven tenants, besides Teddington and Major Peabody,John said at last, looking up from the notepad on which he'd scribbled the information.  Looks like the Ricolettis have lived there for a little over four years.  Since  July of 2016.  They started taking lodgers almost right away.  The first two who give that as their legal address started doing so in August of that year, and none of them show any other address after they lived in Maida Vale.  Now what?



Now we need to know whether any of them are still collecting their pensions,Sherlock said.



Lestrade?John suggested.  “Mycroft?"



No.”  Sherlock pulled out his phone, scrolled through the contacts and selected one.  Sherlock Holmes for Anita Barclay, please,he said when the call was answered.  Looked at John.  Former client,he explained.  Mrs. Barclay.  This is Sherlock Holmes.  Yes.  Lovely.”  Eye roll.  “Actually, theres something now, if you could...?  Thank you.  I wonder if you can access your work computer from home.  Excellent.  Im going to read you eight names--He held out his hand for the list and John passed it over --and for each one Id like to know whether theyre still receiving their pensions, whos listed as the beneficiary, and who has charge of the accounts.  Can you do that?  Great.  Thank you."  He ended the call.  Half an hour,he said to John.  



Who was that?”  



Oh, woman who works at the Pension Service.  Manager of some kind.  I proved that her husband wasnt cheating on her.  Unfortunately it arose that her aunt had stolen her identity and most of her money, but I was able to get that restored, as well.  Shes been grateful ever since.”  



I dont remember that case.”  



Well, it didnt really rise to the level of a case,Sherlock said.  She didnt even make it through the client interview.  I mean it was obvious from the scrape on her right shoe heel and the clasp on her purse.  Yes, I know, it could have been an uncle, but lets not get bogged down in particulars.  Aunt, uncle; she got the money back.



Fifteen minutes later Sherlocks client at the Pension Services came through with the information.  He ended the call, finished scribbling some notes, and looked up.  "Everyone on the list is still receiving his pension,he said.  Alice and Edward Ricoletti are listed as both the beneficiaries and the directors of the accounts, and the deposits are all made electronically, so no physical mail goes to the house and no one ever gets suspicious about eleven people living in a two thousand square foot dwelling.



Well, great.  Thats fraud, then, isnt it?



Sherlock shook his head.  "No.  It's perfectly legal, if unwise on the part of the lodgers.  As far as Mrs. Barclay could make out there have been no withdrawals.  That means no theft.  Even if there had been withdrawals one could argue that the Ricolettis are legally maintaining the accounts and using them as intended, for their lodgers' expenses.  They're apparently carrying out their financial duty to the tenants.  On paper, at any rate.



“‘Apparently,'" John scoffed.  "Thats rubbish.



I know.  But think about it, John.  You have a pension.  Does the money just go into your account and sit there untouched, month after month?  You cant get through Thursday without plundering my wallet.



Yeah, for cab fare.  For cases.  For food that you eat.”



Sherlock waved his hand dismissively.  “It’s just as suggestive that the money has been left completely untouched as it is that the Ricolettis are in charge of it.



"'Suggestive' as in the lodgers are dead because otherwise they'd need to withdraw money now and then?  But maybe they have other sources of income, so they don't need to touch the pension money."



If the Ricolettis have control of some of the money they have control of all of it," Sherlock replied.  "Some money somewhere would be moved around.  Withdrawn.  Spent.  Theres nothing to suggest that those people are still alive and the entire weight of criminal history to suggest that theyre not.



So, what, theyre just stealing all that money and letting it sit there?  Are they saving up for a yacht?  Whats the point?



I dont know.”  Sherlock frowned, tapped his fingers on the table.  



Okay,” John said.  You think the tenants are dead.  But they don’t have to be dead for the fraud to go on, do they?  What if theyre still alive and just moved out?



Then why is there no record of a more current address?"



John considered.  "I can check for records of their deaths," he said.  "That's easy to get."



"Don't bother."



"Why?"



"Because if I'm right then the deaths have never been reported.  It fits with what we know so far."



John turned to the computer anyway.  Sherlock waited while he searched for the lodgers' death certificates, and after the first three came back negative John sat back.  He did not like where this evidence was leading him.  "So," he said.  "The pensions are in the Ricolettis' names.  The lodgers die, Ricoletti doesn't report the deaths.  He keeps control of the money and the checks keep coming in.  No one ever notices because the pensioners have no living friends or relatives, and besides:  They're old and it's to be expected."  



Sherlock looked at him from across the table.  Whats the next question, John?



John went through it again.  “No,” he said, when hed worked it out.  “Oh, God.”



Yes.  The tenants die.  The deaths arent reported.  What happens to the bodies?  You saw the house and grounds.  In that neighborhood theres no hope of disposing of something as large as human remains in the back garden.  Eensys owner alone would have noticed even if no one else did.  But they would.



You think they hide the tenantsbodies in the house?  Is that why Ricoletti made such a big thing about not letting us in?



Yes and no,Sherlock said.



What the hell does that mean?John demanded.



Yes, they hide the tenantsbodies in the house.  No, there arent eight bodies in there.



Dammit, Sherlock,John cried impatiently.  Stop messing about and tell me what the hell is going on here."



Think, John:  If youd killed someone in that house, how would you dispose of the body?  Youve got anywhere from one hundred to two hundred pounds of human remains to hide, and you cant keep putting it in the freezer.  Eventually people notice things like that no matter how much bleach you splash around.  Theres always someone who gets a whiff, or who says after the police raid, You know, it always smelt off at that house.’  What if the power goes out?  Ricoletti would be anxious to get each body out of the house as soon as possible.  Where?  Theres no room to bury them in that back garden and besides, the neighbors would see something.  It takes time to dig a grave.  People would notice.  No.  He has to move the bodies off the premises.  How?  How would Eddie Ricoletti get the bodies out of the house?



Car?" John suggested without enthusiasm.  He wasn't enjoying the speculation.



"No.  The same objection applies:  Over time someone would see him loading the bodies into a car."



"How, then?"



The same way prisoners of war carried evidence of their tunnels away in World War II," Sherlock said.  "A little at a time.  Toss some into a bin here, a park there.  Still, over time things like that are found by people or their dogs.  Someone would have noticed.  I would have heard.  So what do we have instead?



What?”  John was baffled.  



Shopping.



What?



Yes.  Alice Ricoletti goes shopping 'every couple of months,' and she 'lugs a couple of carrier bagswith her.  Who goes shopping with their totes already full?



Oh, my God,John said.  You think shes helping him dispose of the bodies like that?



I think we have to consider the possibility."



"Well...They'd have to be making a lot of trips per lodger," John said.



"Yes.  About six, depending on the size of the victim."



John was extremely unwilling to believe this.  "You actually think that Ricoletti killed all those people, hacked them up in his basement, and carted the pieces off?"



"Yes.  Aside from everything else, Ricoletti gets an armful of knives sharpened every couple a months, but according to the butcher all he buys is ground beef.  Making burgers doesn't require a cleaver.  Then you remember that I asked him whether Ricoletti brought in a stiff or flexible boning knife.  Flexible knives are for fish and poultry.  Rigid knives are for...larger items."



"So the lodger dies, Ricoletti dismembers the body, and they discard the parts...where?"



"Oh, there are all sorts of places suitable for that," Sherlock said.  "Just about anywhere out in the country, away from the city.  You'd want to stay away from parks and reserves, of course.  Anywhere that people and their dogs frequent is likely to be discovered eventually.  But any disused well or abandoned mine or even a wood that doesn't see foot traffic would be ideal.  The bodies might not be discovered for years, if ever.  When the remains are rendered into small pieces like that foxes and other scavengers would tend to scatter--"



"Yes, okay, fine.  I get it," John said, holding up his hand.  "But how would we prove it, or find the remains?  And more to the point, none of this brings us any closer to finding Major Peabody, does it?  He didn't give Ricoletti control over his money.  Besides, if trying to trace a random National Rail trip didn't work, how would we find someone on a random Tube excursion?  We have no idea when the lodgers died, or even if they're really dead.  Just the probability that they are."



No,” Sherlock agreed.  He got up and paced the length of the living room.  "What if we went through the utility records for the house?  I mean really combed through them?  There are smart metres for everything these days:  electric, gas, water.  Changes in the usage would show when the house contained four people instead of just two."



John looked doubtful.  Would that work?



Why wouldnt it?  Well also need Ricolettis Oyster card records,Sherlock said.  If we can establish a pattern of trips out of the city to remote locations where its easy to dispose of a body and match that against the utility records...



Well have the approximate dates of the deaths and maybe a place to start looking for the remains,John finished.  But I still dont see how any of this helps us find Major Peabody.  His affairs are still in his name.  They wouldnt have any motive to kill him.  Would they?



I dont know,Sherlock said.



"I take back what I said about you being a good liar," John growled angrily.  "Look, forget it.  You just go and keep all your little ideas to yourself and forget that I'm involved in this, too.  Forget that we're looking for my friend."



Theres always a motive, John," Sherlock said.  "Whether its immediately apparent or not is a separate question.  But look at the facts.  Peabodys mobile was answered yesterday, allegedly by the landlady, and not since.  Its probably at the bottom of the canal by now.  He missed his appointment with you and has deviated from a routine that never varied.  Eddie Ricoletti has a bruise on his right cheek that was made by someone swinging at him left-handed.  The Major is left-handed.  My exact question to Ricoletti this morning was, 'How long was Peabody your lodger?' and he didn't correct my use of the past tense.  Peabody is known to have caused trouble for him by advising Teddington to maintain control of his own money.  If Peabody's as much like--”  Sherlock abruptly stopped in mid-canter, and his tense, remote expression told John that he'd just forged another link in the chain.



As much like what?



Sherlock refocused on him with an effort.  "Did you see the landlady at all yesterday?"



"No.  Why?  As much like what?  Sherlock."



Sherlock went swiftly to the door, where he slipped on his coat.



Where are you going?



I’m going to see Lestrade.  He can get a warrant for the Oyster card and utility records, and then well know more.”  



Fine,” John said.  While you do that Ill go back to Maida Vale and keep an eye on Ricoletti.



No,” Sherlock said.



Why the hell not?



Wait for me here.  I wont be long.  You should...sleep, or eat, or whatever people do.  You look rubbish.



Oh, thats rich, coming from you," John snapped.  "Sleep in the middle of a case.  Sherlock, if youre right about all this we might catch Ricoletti in the act.  It would take multiple trips to dispose of a body piecemeal like youre suggesting--



And you think that sitting outside the house of someone who weve been told almost never leaves it is a good way to do that.



Well, what the hell do you suggest, then?John shouted.  



That you wait here until I get back from the Yard," Sherlock said reasonably.  "When we have data well have a much better chance of catching Ricoletti when hes actually doing something criminal.



Youre cutting me out of this investigation, Sherlock, and until you tell me why thats going to be a real problem.  Maybe even after you tell me why.



Sherlock looked thoughtfully at him.  John was distraught, tired, and afraid.  Not a good combination.  "I'm not cutting you out, John," he said quietly.  "Come on, then.  We'll both go."



"No," John decided in a flash of defiance.  "I'll go to the Yard.  You can do the sitting around the flat part for once.  Or work on your fascinating case."  He waved his hand at the mess on the sofa wall.  "I don't care."




* * * * *



John slammed the front door on his way out, but it didnt make him feel any better.  He realized that he wasn't being entirely fair to Sherlock, but his distress over the conclusions his friend had reached was profound, and while he'd resigned himself long ago to the idea that Sherlock really did see crime victims as part of a puzzle to be solved, not people to be mourned, in this particular case he was having a hard time reconciling that with his own emotional investment.  Sherlock might still be putting the details together, but his theory that the lodgers, including Peabody, were dead was unlikely to be revised, although John still held out some hope that the Major's financial independence meant that he'd avoided the fate of the other tenants.



He hailed a cab and directed it to Scotland Yard, but once it crossed Dorset he gave the driver the Randolph Avenue address, instead.  He exited the cab at the Warrington, not quite a tenth of a mile from the Ricoletti house.  Briefly he considered keeping the cab in case Ricoletti left in one himself, but he rejected the idea as being needlessly expensive, especially if Ricoletti never left the house.  Then too, if he went out on foot or by Tube John could easily follow.  If he left in a cab, well, John would just have to hope that he could get one of his own in time to follow him.



He approached on the west side of the street on the assumption that if Ricoletti left the house on foot he'd keep to his own east side; following one's target from the opposite side of the street was Surveillance 101.  He found no park benches along the road, but the brownstones were ringed by low walls paralleling the pavement and separating them from the public space, so he sat on one of those about four doors down from the Ricoletti house, and watched.  Experience told him that most people existed in a semi-permanent state of oblivion with respect to their surroundings.  It took practice, focus, and conscious effort to maintain a state of situational awareness that would detect a reasonably subtle pursuer.  Between electronic distractions and a general failure to focus, most people made easy targets for someone wishing to track their movements, so he was fairly sanguine about his ability to follow Ricoletti unseen.



He settled in to wait a few minutes past noon.  Forty-three minutes after he arrived, Eddie Ricoletti emerged and set off northbound along Randolph Avenue.  John gave him a head start of about one hundred metres and then followed, carefully matching his pace.  This was unexpectedly challenging, because while Ricoletti seemed to have a goal in mind he appeared in no particular hurry to reach it.  He looked into shop windows, stopped to watch a police car drive by, and generally meandered.



At the Tube station on the corner of Randolph and Elgin Ricoletti turned right, then left onto the Kilburn High Road.  He kept to the west side pavement there, so John crossed Kilburn, then Elgin, and followed him from the east side of Kilburn.



The first real difficulty occurred where Kilburn spanned the railroad tracks.  Just before the span Ricoletti made a left on Coventry Close and stopped there for about fifteen minutes to hang on his elbows over the brick wall and gaze down at the trains.  John could neither back off nor continue down the street without losing sight of him behind the buildings, and this he was reluctant to do, so he leant against one of the shops and pretended to read a brochure.



Nearly an hour after he'd set out, Ricoletti reached the McDonald's on the corner of Kilburn and Victoria and disappeared inside.  John ducked into the clothing store across from the restaurant.  In the busy shopping district and with so many people coming and going on foot he was in little danger of being discovered by someone who wasn't looking for him.  



Ricoletti spent twenty minutes inside the restaurant.  On leaving he crossed to John's side of the road and headed south, toward home, and John gave him another one hundred metre head start.  Ricoletti stopped into Cooke's Amusements, again forcing John to wait, then emerged about thirty-five minutes later and continued home without stopping again.



John walked past the house and continued south toward Sutherland.  The excursion hadn't done him a bit of good, he realized.  At no point had Ricoletti acted in the slightest way suspiciously, much less criminally, and in retrospect following him had been utterly pointless, just as Sherlock had predicted.  How annoying.  He thought he could probably catch a cab at the Warrington and still make it to Scotland Yard, and Sherlock would never have to know about his misguided errand.  As he stood outside the pub looking up and down the street for a taxi a familiar voice murmured in his ear, "Footsore?"



Being startled irritated John no end.  "Where the hell did you come from?" he demanded.



"Baker Street, obviously."



"How did you know to find me here?"



Sherlock hiked an eyebrow at him.



"What, you've been following me this whole time?  Since I left?  Where the hell were you?  I never saw you."



"Which is exactly what you can expect to see when I follow you."



John glowered at him and Sherlock eyed him back, but in spite of his reputation for peevishness and his famously short way with the slow-witted, Sherlock was not inclined to righteous anger and he was not angry now.  He was, however, worried.  John was not acting rationally, and irrationality could get him hurt.  Unacceptable.



"John," he said, "I realize that you think I'm not putting enough effort into this case, but the fact is that so far we've taken every step that it's possible and reasonable to take, and it's you who are spending energy on pointless motion just so you can feel that you're doing something.  Yes, wandering around after Ricoletti is technically 'doing something,' but it's not doing something effective.  You of all people ought to be able to make the distinction.  Besides that, you're being irrational."



"Irrational?" John cried.  "How is surveilling a suspect irrational?"



"How did you expect to keep up with Ricoletti if he'd got into a cab or a car?" Sherlock demanded.  "You followed him on foot into a neighborhood that you don't know--"



"It's a perfectly safe residential area," John shot back.  "North of the tracks it's commercial--loads of people around."



"'Loads.'  Really.  Did you know that beginning approximately 530 feet from its intersection with Kilburn and quite out of sight of it, Coventry Close is currently blocked to foot traffic by construction?  If Ricoletti knew you were following him he could have led you into a trap.  It's Sunday, which means no workmen at the site and it's quite deserted.  An excellent spot for an ambush; I'd consider it myself."



"I know how to fight," John said tersely.



"Irrelevant," Sherlock snapped.  "I know you can fight.  Can you fight a man Ricoletti's size if he's desperate, without getting a scratch?  If he had a knife?  If you bled out before help could get there, what then?  That's assuming anyone even knew that you'd been injured, much less cared enough to call for help.  The nearest hospital is St. John and St. Elizabeth, four minutes away in the best of circum--"



"All right!" John shouted.  "Fine!  I was wrong.  I made a mistake.  Are you happy now?"



Sherlock looked anything but happy.  "John," he said, and his voice was so low that John had to strain to hear.  "You told me once that what you missed about being a soldier was having something to fight for as hard as you could."  John was still glaring at him, but Sherlock could see in his eyes that he remembered, and that he was surprised that Sherlock did.  "You are fighting for something now," Sherlock said.  "Remember that you have someone to fight for it with."




* * * * *




Lestrade was on the phone when they walked into his office.  He held up a forefinger and mouthed, One second.’  



John waited with ill-concealed impatience, tapping first one foot, then the other, tension evident in every line of his body.  He was, Sherlock knew, very close to the edge.  In contrast, and in defiance of his own nature, Sherlock himself stood very still.  Still and calm.  What John needed right now was Sherlock's focus, competence, and leadership, not more nervous tension that would feed his own.  



As they waited, Sherlock glanced at the case file spread out over Lestrade's desk:  photos, witness statements, crime scene sketches.  He moved a few of the documents about without picking them up, glanced through them in the most perfunctory way, then lost interest:  An ordinary, boring, transparent homicide.



"The dynamic duo," Lestrade said with a grin when he finished his call.



John dropped a scrap of paper on his desk and there was no answering smile on his face or in his eyes when he said, We need information on the people at this address.  Water, electric, gas records to July, 2016.  Oyster card use for the same time period.



Lestrade blinked at his uncharacteristically brusque tone and his smile faded.  Uh...Why?



It’s for an investigation."



Thats it?



That should be enough.



Lestrade stared at John, switched to Sherlock and got nothing, and went back to John.  "Did you guys body swap?  What's going on?"



John shifted impatiently and Sherlock moved to head him off before he did something permanent.  "The investigation is in the preliminary stages,he said formally.  Well be happy to share when things have progressed a bit further, but we cant get there without that data.



Thats not good enough, guys,Lestrade replied.  This kind of stuff requires a warrant, and warrants require judges, and judges require explanations, so unless you can come up with a better reason than ‘Cuz,’ I'm not going to be able to help.



John opened his mouth to make a sharp retort but Sherlock touched his arm.  Wait, the contact said.  John glanced at him, aggravated and unhappy, but he closed his mouth.



Sherlock pointed to the case folder spread out across Lestrades desk.  Youve been puzzling over that womans murder since ten this morning,he said, to the detective's astonishment.



How the hell do you know that?



Sherlock ignored the question.  Allow me to point out the painfully obvious,he said.  Her husband murdered her.  He was wearing a heavy chain necklace.  She fought back, pulled on the chain, and thats how a man who claims to have been choked out from behind by the intruder who killed his wife has marks on the back of his neck.  Theres no blood on her body because after he killed her he washed her and dressed her in clean clothes, probably because he realized that his own blood was on her clothes, and then he repositioned her body next to the bed.  The blood pooled on the floor makes it obvious that he wasnt able to exactly match her original position.  You cant find her bloody clothes because after he killed her he drove away from the house and disposed of them.  For the same reason the forensics team couldnt find her blood on his clothes:  He changed and discarded them along with hers.  After doing so he returned and staged the scene to make it look as though hed fought off the alleged intruder.  He put a ladder against the house to suggest a means for the killer to gain access, then opened the upper floor bedroom window from the inside, which is why there are no footprints in the dew covering the roof.  The fact that in his haste he positioned the ladder backwards is also suggestive.  He alleges that he was home with his car parked beside his wife's all night long, but whereas her car is covered with dew his is not, a clear indication that it was running and fully warmed up because he was driving it while disposing of the bloody clothes.  His motive was her discovery of the simultaneous affairs he was having with his dental office assistant and the personal trainer at his gym, and his wifes probable threat of an expensive and messy divorce.  Now, Inspector,Sherlock concluded with an arrogant lift of his head.  John asked you for some information.



Lestrade stared at them.  There was nothing new in Sherlock's inimical expression, but today there was no camaraderie in John's dark eyes, either.  No warmth.  He was as drawn and tense as Lestrade had ever seen him.  He would have liked to ask after him, but it was evident that he wouldn't get a civil answer.  Just as evidently, Sherlock was handling him:  Lestrade hadn't missed the small gesture that stayed John's outburst.  "Okay," he said carefully.  "I'll make out the warrant.  It will take a few minutes."




* * * * *



They reached Baker Street again just after three p.m. with the utility and Tube data in hand.  Now began the sort of detective work that Sherlock disliked, but often enough there was no way around it.  He closed both doors to the flat to preclude interruptions and they installed themselves at the living room table.



Sherlock began with the Oyster card records.  What he wanted to know was whether a pattern emerged if he plotted out the card use since the Ricolettis moved into the house in 2016.  On a legal pad he made a list of trips by year, subdivided by month.  Anyone carrying bags of human remains would be precluded from hiring a bicycle and would be unlikely to hire a cab out of a desire to remain anonymous.  The fewer people met on such an errand, the better.  Therefore he ignored all the trips made to destinations within the city and to those which lacked wooded or otherwise secluded areas within walking distance of the Tube stop.  To determine that he used satellite mapping imagery in a separate window on the screen.



He scribbled calculations in the margin of the legal pad:  Assuming that an average-sized adult male weighed twelve stone and was cut into pieces that would fit into a shopping tote, he estimated that some thirty-three pieces weighing on average five pounds each would be a reasonable expectation.  Assuming further that each tote could hold no more than a stone, that meant two stone per strip, so about six trips on average per victim.  So he would look for clusters of roughly six train trips, possibly to the same physical location or general area, but definitely within the same time frame, say a week, if each trip took the best part of a day to go out and back.  He made these calculations before he started his search, and in fact that was exactly what he found:  That the Oyster card was used in clusters of six to eight times in a one-week period, but only sporadically otherwise.  The clusters occurred anywhere from two to six months apart and likely represented the installation and then murder of a new lodger.



When he included routes within walking distance to a bus line that would provide access to a greater number of remote areas, he ended up with quite a long list, but what he was really interested in was the pattern and the timing of the trips.  Ricoletti was responsible, Sherlock firmly believed, for eight and probably nine murders over the last four years.  He could go on average about six months between murders and still fit all those deaths into the time frame, assuming that the murders began soon after the Ricolettis moved into the house.



John sat opposite Sherlock, combing through the utility records.  He began with the water bill as being the most likely to show measurable spikes in usage.  Also, water consumption was more or less constant throughout the year and would not vary with temperature the way gas and electric use would, and therefore would not have to be corrected on a monthly basis for the prevailing temperatures.  



They already knew the dates when the tenants began listing the Ricoletti address as their legal residence, so by arraying that information against the water usage he was quickly able to determine that yes, water use at the house did increase when new tenants arrived.  Conversely, it dropped when the number of residents did.  This was all exactly what John would expect to see and there was nothing at all suspicious about it.  On a macro level, the water usage made sense.



It was on the micro level, however, that he found some variations he couldn't explain.  If he looked at the date when each new lodger began listing the residence as his own, and then looked backward at the water use, he still found, even when the only people in the house were the Ricolettis, a brief spike in the water use.  Using the smart metre data he could pinpoint the usage to the hour.  He wondered whether he could detect the same pattern with the electricity, and after some searching through those records he found that the answer was yes:  There was always a spike in the water and electricity prior to each new lodger's arrival.



By the time John had worked through 2016 and 2017 and reached February of 2018, Sherlock finished his Oyster card work, so John explained what he'd found to that point and gave him 2019's utility records.  It was nearly 11:30 before they finished mapping out all the utility records and pinned or taped the results to the wall over the fireplace.  



Sherlock stood with his hands in his pockets considering the data.  It quickly became apparent to him that the pattern was for the electric and water daily spikes to occur immediately--within a day or even hours--before the train trips began, and that at no other time did the usage peak to those levels.  The usage returned to normal just before the train trips began, then stabilized at a slightly increased level to reflect the arrival of each new lodger.  As for the train trips themselves he could discern no pattern except that they all terminated in places within easy walking distance of dense woods or remote areas, which was what he expected to find.



John,” he said, read off the dates on those power of attorney filings," and he marked a red 'X' on the charts for each date on which a tenant signed over his power of attorney.  "Look," he said when they'd finished.  "Do you see what's happened?"



John stared at the chart, but he was exhausted and strung out.  He'd been awake since 7 a.m. Saturday morning, it was nearly midnight Sunday now, and the tension and anxiety were telling on him, so the pattern didn't stand out at once like it obviously had for Sherlock.  He felt thick and stupid from lack of sleep, but he struggled to flog his brain to life and finally the data coalesced into a recognizable pattern.



"The Ricolettis' normal level of water use," he said, pointing.  "The first lodgers arrive...utility use increases with four people in the house...financial authority signed over right here...then the spike in the water and electricity, then the cluster of train trips.  Each time.  Eight times."



"The only variation is in the time between lodgers," Sherlock said.  "The time it took to fill the vacancy and the time it took to get control of the money.  Do you see?"  He pointed to the chart where the utility spike occurred after the first POA filing.  "Ricoletti killed him here...Disposed of the body during this cluster of train trips."



"Yeah, I get the POA and train rides part," John agreed, "but I don't understand the spikes at the hourly level.  Water and electric both spike right before the train trips.  What's that?"



Sherlock hesitated.  "He was working in the basement," he said.  "Then cleaning up."



"Oh, my God," John breathed.  He peered harder at the chart:  There was the same spike yesterday afternoon.  Saturday.  They'd broken this data down at an hourly level and he could see it plainly:  The water and electricity spiked yesterday.  "This is Teddington?" he asked.



"Teddington..." Sherlock said, then stopped.  



"Dammit, Sherlock," John snapped.  "I'm not stupid.  Don't coddle me.  I've been to war and I've seen things even you can't imagine, so don't.  Just.  Don't.  Peabody's dead, isn't he?"



"I think so.  Yes."



John turned again to the chart and forced himself to face the story it told:  The water and electric spike on Saturday night.  His own visit at just after five, standing on the front step asking Eddie Ricoletti to let him in.  Eddie wiping his just-washed hands on a towel as he answered the door.  The bruise on his right cheek, made by a left-handed man.   His nervousness, the constant glancing back into the house.  The odor of Dettol.



"I was right there," he whispered.  "Maybe...If I'd gone into the house, or shouted for him.  Maybe he'd have answered, and I could have brought him out.  I could have...I could have stopped Ricoletti and I could have brought the Major out."  He swept the television remote off the mantel and threw it across the room with an inarticulate yell.



Sherlock never flinched.  "No," he said quietly.



"How do you know that?" John shouted.  "How can you possibly know that?"



Sherlock didn't answer right away.  He waited until John was actually listening, and then he said, "The bruise.  That bruise on Ricoletti's face was made Friday at the latest.  It's not one hundred percent reliable, but the fact that his bruise was more purple than red when we saw him on Sunday suggests that it occurred about two days previously.  Friday night.  After Peabody talked to his daughter."



John stood glaring at him, breathing hard, and there was no comfort in Sherlock's words.



"There's nothing you could have done, John.  He was already dead when you got there.  A day.  Don't make this worse for yourself than it has to be."



"'Worse than it has to be'?" John repeated.  He was shaking with anger now, and there was no one but Sherlock to take it out on.  "How much worse can it be, Sherlock?  Hm?  How much?  An old man...A war hero...Murdered for..."  Anger choked off his words.  He didn't even know why Peabody died.  "For what?  Why the bloody hell did he die?  It wasn't money.  What was the goddamned point?"



"I don't know," Sherlock said.



John sank into Sherlock's chair, too sickened to continue.  Each time they peeled back another layer of this case something unthinkable confronted him, and while he needed answers he was afraid that he wouldn't have the strength to face them when they came.



Sherlock looked again at the chart.  Earlier today John followed Eddie Ricoletti and Sherlock followed John.  But the Oyster card was swiped at the Maida Vale Tube station ten minutes before John arrived at Randolph Avenue.  Eddie Ricoletti wasn't using it.  Alice Ricoletti used that card.  For her 'shopping trip.'  



Sherlock turned away from the chart and rummaged excitedly through the mess on the living room table.  "Where are those access codes from Mycroft?" he asked.  "John!"



"What?"



"The access codes from Mycroft.  Where are they?"



Just there.  Under my laptop,John said without looking up.



Sherlock shifted the computer, found the code, and logged into the restricted site for the Underground, then the Maida Vale station.



"What are you doing?"



"Look at the chart, John," Sherlock said, still with the same eager intensity.  "Ricoletti's Oyster card was used this morning, ten minutes before you got out of your cab on Randolph Avenue, and the return trip wasn't made until shortly after two this afternoon."  



"So...Mrs. Ricoletti was carrying the--the remains away?"



"Yes.  Apparently it wasn't a bad idea for you to follow Ricoletti after all."



"Why?"



Well, shes either an equal partner in the operation or he makes her help under duress," Sherlock said.  "If someone forced you to dispose of body parts like that, wouldnt you find a way to let the police know and get help?  She didn't.  Never has.  Shes just as much in on this operation as he is.  It makes sense," he added.  "Ricoletti has a club foot, you know.  You followed him for four miles today.  You must have noticed it."



John struggled to remember what he'd seen.  "I thought he looked a bit awkward, but a club foot?"



"Surgically corrected," Sherlock said.  "In childhood, but probably late, too, which is why it's still affecting his gait slightly.  It's subtle but apparent now, and became more pronounced as the walk continued.  Then of course there was his shoe."



"His shoe?"



"I noticed it this morning when we spoke with him.  His right shoe has been altered by an orthopaedist to compensate for the residual deformation."



"So?"



"So it makes sense that his wife would have to help by making the trips to dispose of the bodies.  It would involve a lot of walking, and if the idea is to remain as anonymous as possible, limping around in public isn't quite the thing."



The information in no way improved John's mood.  In their work he, like Sherlock, loved and sought the excitement of knowing that they were closing in on the resolution to a case.  Like Sherlock, he savored the way each piece of a puzzle clicked into place, and the more pieces fell together the more intense his focus became, like a predator closing in on his prey with every leap.



Not this time.  This time the more progress they made and the more clearly the picture came into focus, the more desperately he wanted not to see, the more desperately he wanted not to reach the answer but to run from it.  Eight lonely old men, butchered for their money, and his own friend...His challenge to Sherlock was no exercise in hyperbole:  He had seen things in the war, things that he firmly believed even Sherlock's imagination could not encompass, but that was war and war was horror.  Horror that was at least explicable in context.  Predictable, and even expected.  Not this.  This premeditated, ongoing, methodical slaughter was something beyond horror, and John was no longer certain that he had the courage to see this case out.



Sherlock watched him closely.  He wasn't sure what John was thinking, but from his hollow eyes and shocked, defeated expression, he knew that he was very near his limit.  "Tell me about Peabody," he said.



Not by a flicker did John indicate that he'd heard.



"John."



In fact John heard him perfectly.  He knew Sherlock didn't care about the victims, including the Major, for their own sake, and he could conceive of no reason for the question other than an attempt to manage him.  Nor could he summon the spirit for an emotional rally, if that's what Sherlock was after.  "Is this supposed to distract me?" he asked wearily.  "Make me feel better?"



"It's supposed to give me data, John.  Tell me about him."



Like what?



He liked visiting with you at the clinic?”  



Yeah,” John shrugged.  He seemed to."  Data:  He knew Sherlock wanted him to elaborate, to talk until he said something that he could seize upon and use, but at first he couldn't summon the energy to comply.  Finally he said, "We always ended up nattering on for forty-five minutes at a time.  I suppose if he didnt enjoy it he would have changed doctors, or made his appointments for days when I wasnt on staff.  His daughter said he used to avoid the clinic--she had a hard time getting him to go in--but...Well, this is just what she said.  She said once he had me for his doctor he never complained or procrastinated again.”  



He glanced at Sherlock, who was studying him intently, as though he were looking for something, but John couldn't imagine what he sought.  What sort of person was he?Sherlock asked.



Good,John said at once.  He was a good person.  Of course.”  He hesitated.  Sherlock could be a little oblique, and John still wasn't sure what he was asking for now.  Sometimes he objected as strenuously to the wrong sort of information as he did to no information at all.



"That story the sandwich shop manager told us this morning," Sherlock said patiently.  "Did that surprise you, that Peabody stepped in to help that woman?"



No,” John said.  Not at all.  Id have been surprised if he hadnt.  He was old school and he was a Soldier.”  That was how he said it:  'Soldier' with a capital 'S.'  He was retired from the army, but he never really left it, if you know what I mean.  He defended people if he thought they couldn't help themselves.  That was who he was.  He didnt brag about it or anything, but we spent a lot of time talking, and those kinds things always come to the surface sooner or later, if you spend enough time with someone.  Not that he was blowing his own horn:  I dont mean that.  If anything, he downplayed it.  But you fill in the blanks with someone like him, someone who stands up for himself and for other people in a kind of, I dont know, modest way?  Not belligerent or macho, but confident.  Effective.  Does that make sense?”  



Eminent sense,Sherlock said.  Thank you.”  He turned back to the computer, apparently having found in John's answer the information he'd sought, but leaving John no closer to guessing his motive for asking.  



Sherlock selected the Maida Vale station video and began sifting through it.  John watched him dully for about five minutes before joining him, and together they tried to find Alice Ricoletti at the station.  Neither of them knew what she looked like, but Sherlock pointed out that she'd be holding a couple of totes and therefore distinctive.  It took about ten minutes of scanning the footage to find a tall, broad woman in trainers, carrying two heavily-laden tote bags, boarding the train at Maida Vale and exiting at Marchant Close, the station at which the card was swiped for the return trip



"Makes sense," Sherlock noted.  "North of Edgware there are all sorts of eligible places within walking distance where she could dispose of a body."



"Yeah, none of which have cameras.  There's no way to tell which way she's gone after the station."  



"She's carrying about two stone in those bags," Sherlock reminded him.  "She'll go to the closest spot.  We can start with that."



John went to Sherlock's computer on the other side of the table.  "The nearest camera north of the station is at Northway Circus roundabout," he said, peering at the screen.



"See if you can pick her up there," Sherlock said.  "I'll try the one off Green Lane, but that's much farther.  I doubt she'd get into a cab with those bags."



"Got it," John said after another ten minutes of searching.  Sherlock got up to peer over his shoulder.  "Here," John said, pointing.



"Excellent," Sherlock said with satisfaction.  "Now:  When does she make the return trip?  The time stamp puts her at the roundabout at 12:45 going outbound.  Let's see when she gets back."



"Couple minutes before two," John said, having picked her up again returning to the circle.



"So," Sherlock said, "assuming a pace of twenty minutes per mile and as she was weighted down with the bags, she walked at least a mile out and back but no more than a mile and a half each way at that pace, with a maximum of twenty minutes to spare for the disposal."



John reached for the other computer and turned it to face them, then tapped until he brought up an overhead satellite image of the area.  About a half mile north of the roundabout the main road, Barnet Way, passed the Mill Hill Golf Club, the north boundary of which was marked by the imaginatively named Clump of Trees Wood, part of the larger Scratch Wood.  Along Barnet and almost exactly a mile from the roundabout where they'd last seen Mrs. Ricoletti, the otherwise unbroken extent of the wood was interrupted by a small grassy area, easily accessible from the road.



"Here," John said, pointing.



"Yes," Sherlock said.  "Go to the street view.  Hah--look:  There's a multi-use path running all along the west side of that road.  She'd have an easy walk of it, then.  Swing the image around to look northwest, at that clearing."



That showed a broad gap in the post-and-rail fence that separated the walking path from the wood.  A metal gate stood propped against a tree and unconnected to either end of the fence, leaving a space of some six feet on one side and over twice that on the other.



"That's got to be it, don't you think?" John asked.



"I agree."



John rose at once and headed for the door, and hed put on his coat before he realized that Sherlock hadnt moved from the table.  Well?he said impatiently.  Come on.



Not tonight,Sherlock said.



Yes, tonight.  Now.”



John, were looking for evidence.  We can look in the dark if we have to, but we dont have to.  If we wait until light we stand a far better chance of not missing something important.



John hesitated.  Intellectually he knew that Sherlock was right, but while every turn this case took sickened him more than the last, still everything in his nature told him to pursue its end as hard and as fast as he could no matter the personal cost, and that meant leaving at once.



"We've made real progress, John," Sherlock said, seeming to understand his conflict.  "We'll start before dawn so we get there at first light.  Until then you should get some sleep.  I'll wake you when it's time."  



John was too dispirited to argue the point.  His resolve ebbed as quickly as it had flared up, so he turned and climbed the stairs to his room, not bothering to remove his coat.  He sat in the dark on the edge of his bed and listened to Sherlock moving quietly about the flat.  Sherlock could be a noisy, untidy, infuriating companion, filling every level surface with his work and the fridge with his odious experiments, but John remembered too well the agony of believing that that presence had been ripped out of his life forever.  Remembered how the life went out of these rooms.  Out of himself.  He thought about the family who loved Arthur Peabody, still mercifully unaware of the pain to come, and he was glad of the darkness and the solitude and the fact that no one could see his tears.



After a time the violin began to play, very softly, something slow and contemplative in a minor key, a tune he didn't recognize.  He wasn't even sure it was a proper song:  Sherlock often improvised when he was lost in thought, and the resulting music was the most honest barometer John knew for gauging his friend's internal state.  Tonight as the music went on he recognized in it a tacit, subtle message of empathy and understanding, offered to him by a man universally believed to be capable of neither.



A little after three a.m. the music stopped, silence settled over the flat, and he knew that Sherlock had gone to bed.  John did not sleep.



* * * * *



Monday




John was waiting in the kitchen when Sherlock reappeared, and they left the flat just before dawn.  The cab dropped them at the Northway Circus and from there they walked north on Barnet Road.  When they reached the clearing they'd seen in the satellite imagery they stopped.



A half dozen footpaths crisscrossed the quarter acre grassy area that lay between the pavement and the woods.  Even in the half-light Sherlock easily spotted the recent Adidas trainer prints left in the dust.  Alice Ricoletti was wearing Adidas trainers when she took her walk Sunday.



"Your knife," he said, the first words either of them had spoken since they left the flat, and John passed him his SOG knife.  "Wait here," Sherlock said, and followed the trail back, away from the roadway, away from John.  The path ended at the woods, some one hundred and fifty feet from the road.



Although the clear sky held the promise of a fine day, the sun was not yet clear of the horizon and the wood remained blanketed in shadow.  Moving slowly to ensure that he missed nothing, he pushed into the trees.  With his torch he easily made out the occasional partial print and the places where Alice Ricoletti stepped on tree roots and dislodged the moss.  When he judged that he'd gone far enough he stopped and shone the light about.  



Straight on another ten feet into the trees the beam revealed a small mound of black plastic-wrapped items.  These varied in size, but all were of a size and shape that would easily fit into a shopping tote of the sort Ricoletti had carried.  Three of the packages had been dragged several feet away from the mound by foxes, and the wrapping bore the marks of their needle teeth.  Two of the disturbed packets had been chewed open and the contents partially eaten.



Sherlock didn't have to open the rest of the parcels to know what was inside, but he stooped and cut into several of them anyway, then moved over to those the foxes had been at, one of which was a foot-long section of human spine, liberally scored with kerf marks.  Wedged into one vertebra was a roughly star-shaped disk of metal about the size of a £1 coin:  Clearly not part of the weapon or utensil responsible for the kerf marks, and besides, even in this light he could easily make out the remodeling of the surrounding bone.  He used the knife to pry the object out of the bone and wiped it first on the leaf litter, then the plastic, to remove any traces of gore.  He did the same with the knife, then cleaned his hands as well as he could and reached for his phone.




* * * * *



John stood with his back to the woods, facing the road, and kept watch along the path, but aside from two bicyclists commuting to work and a single runner, no one passed by.  He heard Sherlock approaching quietly through the frosty grass and turned to meet him.



John studied his face, but Sherlock's expression was impenetrable.  As well as John knew him--better than he'd known anyone in his life--there were still times when Sherlock could be, when he chose, a book closed even to John.



"Well?" he asked.



"This is it," Sherlock said.  "I need you to look at something.  Not there," he added, when John's eyes went to the wood he'd just left.  "Here."  He opened his hand to reveal the piece of metal he'd dug out of the bone.  "Do you know what this is?"



The colour drained from John's face and he stepped back as though he'd been struck.



"John?"



"Shrapnel," John whispered, his throat so tight he could barely get the word out.  "It's shrapnel.  The Major..."  He turned away, putting his back to Sherlock, and stood with his arms at his sides, his hands balled into fists, his back rigid.



"John," Sherlock said.



"I can't do this," John said, shaking his head.  "I can't.  Not again."



"It's done," Sherlock said grimly.  "We couldn't help him.  But we can try to make it right for the people who cared about him."



"'Right'?" John repeated.  He couldn't believe he'd just heard that, and he turned to face Sherlock.  "There is no 'right' here, Sherlock.  This--" pointing at the grove "--can never be right."



"We can get justice for him."



John looked into his face then, into his icy, implacable eyes.  If John had been at that house he'd have killed Eddie Ricoletti before he allowed any harm to come to Major Peabody.  He was ready to kill Ricoletti now.  He looked at Sherlock and said, "Yes."



* * * * *



They rode back to Maida Vale in silence.  Only when the cab slowed to make the right turn onto Elgin Avenue did Sherlock speak.



"John," he said.  "Do you trust me?"



For the second time in the space of an hour John couldn't believe what he was hearing.  "Why do you ask me things like that?" he demanded.



Sherlock looked doubtful.  "Does that mean 'yes'?"



"Yes, of course it means 'yes.'  Of course I trust you.  What does that--"  He stopped.  Ahead on the left was the Maida Vale Tube station, and parked along the kerb outside were Lestrade's official car and a marked police ride.  Two uniformed cops stood on the pavement, talking with the DI.



"Stop here," Sherlock said to the driver, and tossed a bank note into the front seat.



John was still staring at the cops in open-mouthed outrage when Sherlock leant over and spoke into his ear.  "Trust me now," he said, and got out of the car.



John swore, hurried to catch up, and grabbed him by the arm.  "Sherlock!"



Sherlock stopped and looked down at him and John searched his face, but there was nothing there.  He couldn't penetrate that cold mask, and if there was a human emotion behind those remorseless pale eyes it was beyond his reach.  Do you trust me?  He nodded once and let go of Sherlock's arm.



Lestrade leant against the bonnet of his car, an official blue warrant envelope in his hand.  "You made good time," he observed as they approached.  He peered especially at John, started to say something, then thought better of it.  John looked if anything more burned out and on edge now than he'd been at the station yesterday.  Instead Lestrade asked, "Ready?"



"In a minute."  Sherlock pitched his voice to include the two uniformed policemen.  "You will present the warrant, Inspector," he said, "to make it official.  And then you will step aside and you will let me handle what happens next."  He looked imperiously at the uniforms.  "You will all let me handle this."



The cops looked a little uncertainly at Lestrade, but Lestrade just rolled his eyes.  "Do what he tells you," he said.  



Sherlock set off for the Ricoletti house.  John glanced at him once or twice--he still couldn't believe that he'd called the police--but Sherlock didn't look at him and John knew that he wouldn't get any answers.  This would play out the way Sherlock wanted it to, and all John could do was be ready for whatever happened next.



On the pavement outside the house Sherlock stopped.  "You," he said to the uniforms.  "Around back.  There's one exit.  Watch it, and let no one through."



Lestrade rang the bell and after a moment Ricoletti answered the door.  "Yes?"



"Eddie Ricoletti?" Lestrade said.



"Yes."



"Police."  Lestrade showed him his badge.  "We have a search warrant for these premises.  Please step aside.  Keep your hands where we can see them."



Ricoletti backed up, opening the door for them, and, to John's surprise, smiling.  Inside the house the smell of Dettol was much fainter than it had been on Saturday.



A woman's voice, harsh and annoyed, came from the end of the hall that led to the back of the house and the kitchen.  "Who is it, Eddie?"



"It's the police," Ricoletti said.  "They have a warrant.  I have to let them in."



Alice Ricoletti hurried down the hall, wiping her hands on a dishtowel.  At once John recognized her as the same woman he and Sherlock tracked from the Tube station.  "What the hell are you talking about?" she demanded, and glared at Lestrade.  "Let me see that."



Lestrade handed her the warrant and she made a show of reading it, but Sherlock didn't wait for her.  He was looking at Eddie Ricoletti.



"Sit down, Eddie," he said gently, and pointed to an overstuffed armchair in the near corner.  His tone surprised John, as did Ricoletti's response:  He immediately sank into the chair, looking relieved and pleased.



"What are you doing?" Alice snapped at her husband.  "Don't listen to him."



Sherlock ignored her.  "Tell me what's in the basement, Eddie," he said, his voice low.



"The basement?" Ricoletti quavered.



"Shut up, Eddie," Alice cried.  "Don't tell him anything.  Just because they have a warrant doesn't mean you have to tell them anything.  Keep your mouth shut."



Eddie glanced at her, then back at Sherlock.  Uncertain.  Alice was nervous and angry, but Sherlock was calm, confident.  "Tell me about the basement, Eddie," he said again, his voice a reassuring baritone rumble.  "It's okay.  We know about Major Peabody.  We know about all your lodgers.  We just need you to tell us what happened."



Eddie licked his lips and glanced again at his wife.



"Shut your damned mouth, Eddie," she hissed.



"You liked the Major, didn't you, Eddie?" Sherlock said.  "He was kind to you.  And to Brian Teddington?  He was kind to everyone.  You haven't had too much kindness in your life, have you?  Maybe other people would have been kind to you, if you'd gone out more, and met them.  Made some friends?  But you couldn't go out, could you?  Couldn't have friends.  Because of what was in the basement.  Tell me about that, Eddie.  Tell me about the basement."



Eddie Ricoletti stared at Sherlock like a fawn at a wolf.  "The Major was nice to me," he agreed in a small voice.



"I know," Sherlock said, and his voice was warm.  Encouraging.



"In the basement..." Ricoletti began.  "In the basement..."  He started to cry.



"Go on," Sherlock said quietly.  "Tell me."



"The knives," Ricoletti whispered.  His voice was so soft that John wasn't sure what he'd said.



"Shut up, you moron," Alice screamed.  "Don't tell him anything."  No one looked at her.



"What else?" Sherlock asked.  He hadn't broken eye contact with Ricoletti since he started talking.



"Saws."



"Yes."



"The...the plastic.  Plastic bags."



"For what?"



For the lodgers.”  



For the Major?”  



Ricoletti nodded, hung his head, and his tears pattered on his thighs.



John was shaking with emotion now, but he was looking at Sherlock, not Ricoletti.  He didn't care whether Lestrade was in the room or not:  At the least sign he would kill Eddie Ricoletti, but the sign never came and he couldn't understand what Sherlock was doing.  Trust me now.



"They had to die, didn't they?" Sherlock said, and Ricoletti nodded miserably.  "Why did they have to die?"



"For the money," Ricoletti sniffled.



"So you could move out of the city?  Go back to the country and have a farm again.  Raise some animals."



Ricoletti nodded.  "Chickens," he said.  "I wanted to have chickens."



"Like when you were a boy."



"Yes," Ricoletti whispered.



"Eddie," Alice snarled, "if you don't shut up you will never have that farm.  Never.  Shut your damned mouth."



"She's controlled your whole life, hasn't she, Eddie?" Sherlock said, still in that low, soothing voice.  "Never let you have friends.  Never let you go to your favorite restaurant.  You had to sneak out when she left the house.  Like yesterday, when you went to McDonald's."



"Yes," Eddie whimpered, crying harder.



"You know she lied to you, right, Eddie?"



Ricoletti raised his tear-slobbered face to look from his wife, who was glaring furiously at him, to Sherlock, whose grey eyes held nothing but sorrow and compassion.  John knew it was an act, but he couldn't begin to see to what end.



"She lied about everything," Sherlock said.  "She lied about going back to the country.  About having a farm again."



"Shut up!" Alice screamed at him, but no one looked at her.  Everyone, including John, stared at Sherlock.



"You know what else she lied about?" Sherlock asked.



Ricoletti shook his head slowly.



"Your dad."



"My dad?" Ricoletti asked, blinking.



"He died in a fire, didn't he?"



A nod.



"No," Sherlock said sadly.  "She killed him.  Just like she killed Major Peabody and Teddy and all your other lodgers.  Your friends.  Your father didn't want her to marry you.  He tried to protect you and to be kind to you.  He wanted you to stay with him so he could protect you.  He wanted you to stay in the country and be happy.  He wanted you to stay away from Alice.  Do you remember that?"



Eddie Ricoletti nodded.  "He said she was bad news," he mumbled.



"That's right.  So she killed him and burned the house, and she told you that he died in the fire.  It was a lie, Eddie.  It's all been a lie.  Your dad didn't deserve to die like that.  He was just trying to do what was best for you.  The Major tried to do what was best for you, too, to protect you, just like your dad.  Teddy and your other lodgers:  They didn't deserve to die, either.  All those people were kind to you, and she killed them all."



"She killed my dad?"



"Yes, Eddie.  I'm so sorry."



"I didn't!" Alice screamed.  "Eddie, he's lying to you!"



Eddie Ricoletti glanced at his wife, then went back to Sherlock, his eyes wide.  Sherlock shook his head.  "No, Eddie.  I'm not lying.  I have no reason to lie to you, but she does.  She killed all the people who were ever nice to you.  All the people who could have helped you, because she wanted to control you.  Those people didn't deserve to die.  They were kind, decent people who never hurt anyone.  There are people who deserve to die, though.  People who lie.  People who are cruel and hurt others.  You know someone like that, right, Eddie?"  He turned his head slowly to look at Alice, and Eddie followed his gaze.



Alice Ricoletti was red with rage.  Eddie, you stupid shit," she screamed, "he’s lying to you."



Sherlock had been speaking encouragingly to Eddie, leaning in toward him, making eye contact, keeping his voice low and comforting.  Now as he turned to Alice his expression hardened and he drew himself up, and as angry as she'd been a moment ago she shrank away from the force of his rage.



"You killed that old man," he snarled.  "You thought he was like all the others, but he wasn't.  He was a soldier.  A fighter.  A hero.  He stood up for himself and for people who couldn't defend themselves.  People like Brian Teddington.  People like Eddie.  Eddie didn't get that bruise from Peabody.  He got it from you.  Your left hand:  Look at it.  The knuckles are bruised where you struck him.  Peabody tried to stop you, didn't he?  Got between you and your victim?  Just like Eddie's dad.  Peabody defended Eddie, he was kind to him, and you murdered him for it.  You didn't even kill him for his money, like you did the others.  You killed Arthur Peabody because he was good."  



He started toward her and she flinched away, shrinking against the wall.  "Eddie!" she squeaked.  Eddie Ricoletti launched himself out of the chair--but it wasn't to protect her from Sherlock.  He was fast, faster than John would have believed possible for such a big, slow-witted man, and he charged past Sherlock, straight at his wife.  With a shriek she bolted for the kitchen.  



Sherlock raced after them, followed by John and Lestrade, but when he reached the kitchen entry he slid to a stop and braced himself against the jamb, blocking the entrance and barring the way to John and Lestrade.



"Sherlock, bloody hell!" Lestrade cried.  "Get out of the way!"  John, too, shoved as hard as he could to get by, but Sherlock immovably blocked their way.  Nor, in the confusion, could John see what was happening in the kitchen beyond, although he could hear, over Lestrade's outraged shouts, Alice screaming at Eddie.  The screams cut off abruptly, there was a brief, violent scuffle, a crash of breaking glass, and the sound of something heavy falling.  In seconds, it was done.



Sherlock straightened from his braced position in the door frame and stepped calmly aside.  With the way suddenly clear John and Lestrade plunged into the room, then pulled up short and stared in astonishment.  



Sprawled on the floor across the shattered remains of a green glass bowl, Alice Ricoletti lay face up, her neck bent at an unnatural angle, her eyes wide in final surprise, and her mouth open and slack.  Her left leg was folded under her right and her arms flung wide.  Eddie Ricoletti stood over her, staring down as though the sight surprised him, as though it wasn't he who had put her there.  He looked up, half turned, and met John's eyes.



That was all it took to break the spell:  John went for him like a tiger, but Sherlock was ready and caught him by the shoulders.  "No," he said firmly.



John strained to get at Ricoletti but Sherlock was an impassable barrier.  John could fight as much as he liked, and he would not get by.  He knew it:  He forgot how much steel was hidden within that narrow frame.  He stopped fighting and put up his hands, conceding, but he never took his eyes off Eddie Ricoletti and there was no mistaking his intent.



Ricoletti took no notice of the drama as he stood staring down at his dead wife.  "Some people deserve to die," he murmured to himself.  He lowered himself to the floor and sat down next to the body, then looked up at John, although his words were addressed to Sherlock.  "He's your friend," he said.  



"Yes," Sherlock said.



"He wants to kill me."



"Yes."



"You should let him," Ricoletti said.  His next words were for John.  "You were the Major's friend, too," he said.  "He tried to help me.  When she hurt him I was afraid.  I thought she would hurt me.  I thought she would tell me we couldn't have the farm after all.  I was always scared when she hurt them."  For a moment John thought Ricoletti was going to start crying again, but then a sudden thought brightened his coarse features.  "I'm going to go to prison," he said.  "She didn't lie about that.  It won't be like on the farm, but it will be okay.  At least no one else will get hurt because I'm afraid."



John stared at him, and he didn't even feel it when Sherlock took his arm and led him out of the house.



* * * * *



The last of the criminalist teams finally arrived.  The press, of course, had been on scene almost immediately, competing with the blow flies for the honour of being the first scavengers to arrive, and they milled now on the pavement along with a crowd of onlookers that grew as the grisly news spread.  Lestrade had dispatched a second investigative unit to the Barnet Way site and he'd had a good enough look at the basement abattoir to complete the picture.



John saw none of it.  Sherlock had bundled him into a cab, and it stood now in the driveway.  Through the living room window they could see him sitting there, looking defeated and angry.



"Poor sod," Lestrade said sympathetically.  "He's taking it pretty hard, isn't he?"



He does that,Sherlock said with a frown of disapprobation.  “He cares.”



Yeah, lucky for you,Lestrade replied, and Sherlock hiked an eyebrow at him.



He'd already taken Lestrade through most of what brought them to this point, and the DI had a pretty fair picture of what had been going on.  Still, there were a few details on which Lestrade wasn't quite clear yet.  "So," he said, "you initially thought that Peabody clocked Eddie Ricoletti during an argument over the other lodger's pension and that Ricoletti killed him for it, but what made you realize that it was his wife beating up on him, instead?"



"There's nothing new under the sun, Inspector," Sherlock said.  "Criminals as you know have patterns.  When John came home Saturday night and mentioned that his elderly patient was missing from his rooms and that the landlord and landlady had conflicting but equally implausible stories about where he'd gone, I looked into their background.  Spent the night at the library, searching the newspaper archives, among other things.  Alice Ricoletti had a long and sordid history of insurance claims, mysterious fires, and conveniently-timed deaths in her past, as well as four arrests and one conviction for domestic abuse of a boyfriend between 1999 and 2001.  The insurance claims were always for amounts too low for the companies to bother disputing, but any semi-alert detective could have put things together twenty years ago and saved everyone a lot of trouble.  Of course as you also know, semi-alert detectives are rather thin on the ground."



"Yeah.  Great.  So she was a loser.  And?"



"Peabody didn't fit the profile of their other tenants:  Alone in the world.  Suggestible.  He was independent, mentally sharp.  Wouldn't go along with the plan to give up control of his finances.  Not sure how he slipped through their screening process, but if he withheld his family situation on the grounds that it was none of their business it would fit his character.  But where was the motive to kill him, if it wasn't financial?  Best thing to do with someone like that is to keep raising the rent until he moves out.  And yet he ended up dead.  He was a particular kind of person, Lestrade.  The kind that will step in to defend someone from a bully, even at a cost to himself.  He might or might not have known what happened to Teddington; whether Teddington was killed before or after Peabody you'll have to ask Ricoletti, although I suspect it was after.  When Alice Ricoletti held out her left hand for that warrant just now and I saw the bruise on her knuckles it confirmed what I'd already suspected:  I knew who Peabody was defending, and from whom."



Alice Ricoletti smacked her husband around.



Yes.  Whether she hid the abuse from the other lodgers or not theres no telling, but Peabody was the first to defy her over it, and she killed him for his trouble.



Yeah, and on the subject of killing people," Lestrade said irritably.  "I know you think Im a drooling idiot, but I know what you did in there, talking Ricoletti into killing his wife, and I damned well don't appreciate being put into that position.”  



"What position?" Sherlock asked insolently.  "The one where you think you should arrest me for talking to someone?  You heard what Ricoletti said.  Some people deserve to die.”  



Jesus, Sherlock," Lestrade cried.  "What the hell is wrong with you?  You dont get to decide that.



Ricoletti decided it."



"At least tell me that little trick didnt have Johns blessing.”  



Actually, I believe I implied to him that we were coming here so he could kill Ricoletti himself."  He smiled smugly at Lestrade's stunned expression.  “I’m afraid those were your only options, Inspector:  Ricoletti gets justice for his father, or John does, for Peabody.”



"John would never do that."  Lestrade sounded almost sure of it.



Sherlock stopped smiling.  "You think you know him, Lestrade, because hes not like me.  I think John has depths that you cant begin to imagine."  He glanced out at the cab.  "He did want to kill Ricoletti.  He was that angry.  But in this case, you're right.  He just needed time to remember that he's better than that."  He swung his gaze back to Lestrade.  "I'm not."



Lestrade glared at him.  The bare truth of what happened--Sherlock told Ricoletti that his wife murdered his father and Ricoletti snapped--was one thing.  Sherlock's motive for telling Ricoletti was another, and they both knew it.  Lestrade would have a hard time explaining it to a jury, however.  It would also be hard to explain how he and John together hadn't been able to get past him to stop Ricoletti.  And there was no question of whose side John would take if Lestrade insisted on pursuing it that far.  



From their first meeting Lestrade had known that Sherlock worked for his own ends, but the fact that so often the police benefited from his efforts nearly always let the Inspector indulge in the luxury of forgetting that.  Days like this reminded him of the unnerving truth:  Sherlock Holmes was a redoubtable and dangerous man, perfectly capable of operating as a law unto himself, very willing to do so, and answerable to no one.  Well, almost no one.  But what happened when the man Lestrade counted on to hold Sherlock in check loosened his grip?  Sherlock was there for John today, but God help them all, Lestrade thought, if those two ever went over the wall at the same time.



He glanced again at the man in the cab.  It wasnt a crime to wish someone dead--not yet--so he sighed and dropped it.  



What about this victim?" he said finally.  “Peabody.  I’ve never seen you so worked up about a murder victim before.  Or at all.  Did you know him?”  



I never met him,Sherlock replied indifferently.  He was Johns friend.”  



Then I dont understand.”  



Sherlock shifted impatiently.  Lestrade was starting to bore him.  What?”  



Was that part of the act?  All that stuff you said about Peabody?  If you didnt know him, why did you go on like that?”  



He reminded me of someone.”  



Lestrade scowled irritably.  You didnt know him but he reminded you of someone.”  He searched Sherlock's face but it was like trying to make sympathetic human contact with a crocodile.  Christ, he thought, how does John do it?



Sherlock reached the limit of his patience.  Good day, Inspector,he said, and walked away.




* * * * *  




"Baker Street," Sherlock said to the driver, and they left the Ricoletti house behind.



John waited until the cab was under way before he finally spoke.  "What you said about Peabody.  Did you mean that?"



Sherlock didn't answer.  He was looking out the window.  



"You don't believe in heroes," John decided finally, after studying his impassive face.  He moved on to the next question.  "How long have you known that it was the wife?"



"I've suspected since Saturday night."



"Saturday night?  Saturday night you were working on a case."



"Yes," Sherlock said.  "And then I stopped working on it.  When I went out it was to get background on Peabody and his landlords.  Initially I thought they were probably both behind the pension and murder scheme, but between meeting Eddie yesterday and then Alice today, it was obvious that she was driving things.  Everyone Alice Ricoletti was ever close to ended up dead, and Eddie probably would have been in line for the same treatment, eventually, but first she needed him for the money:  Killed his father, burned the house, married Eddie, and used the insurance and inheritance money to buy the Maida Vale property.  Eddie Ricoletti is no victim, though.  It was only possible to manipulate him into turning against her because he has a sense of right and wrong.  What he lacks is the character to act on it."



"That's where you were all night," John said.  "Going through the archives."



"Mm," Sherlock said.



"That's how you knew all that stuff about a farm?  Ricoletti living in the country?"



"Most of it.  Some of it was guesswork, but accurate, as it turned out.  The research gave me enough to fill in most of the picture.  Eddie confirmed it just now."



John did not find that these answers mollified him, and under the weight of his censure Sherlock fidgeted uneasily.  "What?"



Why the bloody hell didnt you say something?John demanded.  Why do you never say anything?”  



A shrug.  Because I wanted to be wrong."  



You wanted to be wrong?  You knew you werent.  Since when do you let what you want get in the way of what you know?”  



Never.  I let it get in the way of what you knew.”  



John took a deep breath and looked out the window.  Had his brain not been so clouded by exhaustion, had he not been so dispirited, he might have understood sooner.  Sherlock followed a code of his own devising, one that often led him to choices which, while John was in the midst of trying frantically to negotiate them, appeared baffling and opaque.  Yet when he had leisure to consider, as he did now, John thought he could probably distill Sherlock's code into a single commandment:  'Thou shalt ruthlessly follow where cold reason leads without exception.'  And of course the exception:  'Unless it's to do with John Watson.'  



John turned from the window.  As he often did when he wasn't quite sure what John was thinking, Sherlock was eyeing him almost warily.  "Why," John asked, "are you the only person in the world who makes me want to punch him for trying to be nice to me?




* * * * *



Sherlock heard Johns key in the front door.  It was easy for him to hear this because hed been listening for it for hours, sitting in the firelight.  Although he was holding a book he had picked up somewhat at random, he was not reading it.  Just listening.



He heard John lock up again, heard the alcove door open and close, and followed his progress as easily as if he were standing in the hall with him.  John put one foot on the step, then hesitated, as though the effort of climbing the stairs was beyond him.  But he did it, slowly, moving like an old man.  Seventeen steps to their landing.  Sherlock wondered whether he would go straight to his room, but John stopped in the living room entry.



Sherlock looked up from the book, giving every appearance of having just realized that John was home.  He knew that John knew this was rubbish, but he did it anyway.  He wasnt sure why.  



John looked emotionally flayed and physically exhausted, and worse even than he had looked at the Ricoletti house.   After pausing in the entry he hung up his coat, crossed to his chair, and dropped heavily into it.  He slipped off his shoes and leaned back with a sigh.  



The kids werent home,he said after a moment.  Thats something.  I phoned her best friend.  Waited until she got there.  Shes going to stay with them overnight.  Left a script for a couple of ProSoms, to help her sleep.”  He rubbed at his eyes.  They dont make anything to help you forget.”  



A bottle of scotch stood on the end table beside Sherlocks chair, and two glasses.  He rose, set one of the glasses on the table next to John, and poured.  He poured another glass for himself and sat down again.



John watched him fill the glasses, then eyed him sourly.  What the hell are you doing?



Tell me about him,Sherlock said.



The request seemed to irritate John.  Why?he demanded.  You dont care about him.



Sherlock didnt answer, and after a moment John filled in his own blanks.  I dont need a babysitter,he growled.



No,” Sherlock agreed.



John tried again.  “Don’t you have a case waiting?  You should get back to that.



Another time.



John glared at the fire and Sherlock could guess the course of his thoughts.  John knew him, he knew what he was offering, and he knew why.  Yet he wasnt ready to talk, either.  He scowled at the glass, gave it a quarter turn.  Another.  Then he picked it up and tossed it down in two swallows.  



Sherlock poured again.  John went a little slower on the second glass, but not much.  He hadnt eaten in over two days and the scotch worked quickly.  “I’m gonna end up like Harry,he said, when hed drained it.



Sherlock filled the glass a third time, and John started talking.  He talked about how he met Major Peabody, what a great sense of humour he had, how he always came to the clinic with rude jokes that made John laugh and made the nurses purse their lips.  How they traded stories about their time in the service, how interesting it was to listen to intelligent discourse on other conflicts, other countries, other times.  He talked about how much he admired a man like the Major for remaining a soldier, even after he hung up his uniform.



Some people are like that,he said, holding up the glass and peering through the amber liquid at the fire.  Some people take off the uniform and go back to being civilians and the service never really affected them.  Theyre glad to get out and they never look back.  People like the Major take off the uniform but you know them on sight.  You know theyre soldiers even when they arent, because its who they are.  First time I saw him, I knew he was Army.



Sherlock listened, and he knew what John meant because hed spotted it in him the first time they met:  The way you held yourself said:  ‘soldier.’  He’d seen it every day since, as well:  The way John conducted himself, the way he wouldnt back down from a fight, the way he always did what he thought was right.  John immediately recognized qualities like principled honour, integrity, and generosity in Peabody because those traits were so fundamentally part of himself.  He treated Sherlock as though he saw them in him, too.  Sherlock sometimes wondered about Johns judgement.



There were many things about people and emotions that Sherlock didnt understand and didnt care to understand, but he wanted to understand John.  So he didnt mind hearing about someone he'd never met because John and the Major were forged from the same steel.  Like Arthur Peabody, John was willing to kill and die to protect the people he set himself to defend.  For some reason he included Sherlock in that class, and even after all this time Sherlock found that by turns interesting and somewhat daunting, but on balance admirable.  But it was John, Sherlock knew, who needed defending.  He left himself vulnerable because he cared, and while Sherlock could neither approve of nor understand that he knew that it was the case.



So although there was nothing to fear that night--no external threats, no enemies, no pursuers--Sherlock listened and kept watch.  He listened as John talked about his murdered friend.  The things he said about the Major told Sherlock more about John than they did about Peabody, and as John talked Sherlock wondered once again whether John's way didn't require more strength than his own.



After a time John stopped talking.  He stared into the fire, and soon his eyes drifted shut.  Sherlock listened to his breathing and he knew the exact moment when sleep came and relieved, for a little while, Johns distress.  He listened as the old house creaked and settled around them, as the embers popped and the steam rattled in the pipes.  As the night wore on he listened to the sounds of the city fade outside their window.  He thought of Arthur Peabody, eight-five years old and fragile, still standing up until the moment he was cut down for his virtue, and he thought that John was like that now and would always be like that:  Always the best and bravest man Sherlock would ever know.



Heroes dont exist, he thought to himself in the dark.  But if they did, they would be men like John Watson.




* * * * *



John’s toes were cold.  He didnt have to open his eyes to know that it was morning, but he opened them anyway.  The fire was nearly out.  Just a heap of white ash and a few glowing embers in the center of the grate.  That explained the toes.  There was a separate explanation for the blanket draped across him, tucked around his shoulders.



The chair across from his was empty.  The scotch and the glasses were gone.  John clutched the blanket around himself and got stiffly to his feet.  Outside the windows the night sky was just giving way to that indeterminate, featureless colour that could mean a low overcast or a clear day.  Ten more minutes would decide it, but he didnt want to be awake in ten more minutes.  



He glanced down the hall as he headed for the stairs, at Sherlocks door, and then he climbed the steps to his own room.



* * * * *