Excerpt: Alchemy

She’s dreaming in the shallows of sleep. A dream she’s had dozens of times in the last year, the deep blues of water, the cold, sweet silence. Gliding through it like a giant stingray. The light above her feeble and rippling. She gives into the feeling of submergence, the sleek cold, the soundless blue seeping into her body. She doesn’t know if she’s floating or swimming. When she sees the giant, red octopus sprawled across the top of a coral shelf yards below her, she is not intimidated. The octopus pushes herself up and away on her ballooning tentacles, squirting black ink that turns the water pitch black in every direction. She is suspended in darkness—but she isn’t afraid. She looks up and sees the weak, white light beyond the surface, a distant sun transformed into a full moon.


*~*~*

Lestrade stands alone next to the covered corpse with her hands in her coat pockets, her mouth set into a grim line. Sherlock heads straight for her, stopping just before the opposite end of the body. She does a quick scan of her surroundings, looking for anything weird or shocking that would explain why Lestrade called her. She notices some of the forensics people and the uniformed coppers glaring at her from a distance, but she ignores them. Plenty of the police force openly dislikes her.

“Are you alone?” Lestrade says.

“Watson’s on her way,” says Sherlock. “What’s the story?”

Lestrade glances at the wet, black tarp covering the body. “One victim. White female, approximately twenty years of age, obviously homeless.”

“All right, and?”

“Looks like she was beaten to death.”

Sherlock pauses, staring at the older woman. “Lestrade, you did not call me out here to solve a murder an idiotic police detective who just passed his exam could figure out by himself if he bothered to do the work.”

Lestrade crouches down and pulls back the tarp, revealing the victim lying on her back. Her face is covered in black and purple bruises, one eye swollen shut, her peeling lips split and scabbed, flecks of blood dried around her nostrils and the skin above her mouth stained pink, dark blood dried in her dirty blonde hair. Her neck has bruises typical of strangulation victims, but it’s likely she was choked only as a means of torture and died from the beating itself. Most of the damage to her body is hidden under layers of ragged clothing, but Sherlock knows her torso is purple and blue without having to strip her.

It isn’t the gruesome condition of the corpse that stuns Sherlock. It’s the one detail that sets this corpse apart from every other she’s seen in her career as a consulting private detective: her name has been cut into the left inner forearm. SHERLOCK. The blood washed away in the rain, but the skin is still inflamed, red and angry around the dried up wounds.

Sherlock looks up at Lestrade.

“Did you know her?” says Lestrade.

“No,” Sherlock replies, only a little outraged at the question.

“She wasn’t one of your network?”

“No.”

“You know I have to ask.”

“I’ve never seen this woman before, and if I had, I would tell you.”

Lestrade nods, then leans over to cover the corpse with the tarp again.

Sherlock would inspect the ground surrounding the victim if she wasn’t so disturbed by the notion that Lestrade might suspect her of murder. She watches the other woman in disbelief, waiting for Lestrade to explain herself, but the Detective Inspector doesn’t speak, looking at the tarp with her back to the other Yarders.

“What are you thinking?” Sherlock demands, her shock melting fast in the heat of her mounting indignation.

“I’m thinking whoever killed this girl has something against you,” Lestrade says. “Maybe you know him, and maybe you don’t. But he certainly knows who you are.”

“No, you were just considering the possibility I did this or had something to do with it. In what universe does it make any sense to suspect I not only killed this woman but signed my name to the deed?”

Lestrade gives Sherlock a soft but pointed look. “I had to ask, Sherlock.”

“No, you didn’t, Lestrade, because you knew the answer before you asked the question.”

“I had to ask.”

Watson’s cab arrives and lets her out on the road. She jogs up to the pair of detectives and stops between them, looking from Sherlock to Lestrade. “Hey, sorry, I didn’t get here sooner,” she says. “What did I miss?”

Sherlock doesn’t take her eyes off Lestrade for a beat, glaring at her in a way Watson has probably never seen. Lestrade’s expression remains conciliatory, almost apologetic, not defensive.

“What’s going on?” Watson says.

Sherlock finally looks at her and says, “Walk with me.”

She starts moving without waiting for Watson, turning her back on Lestrade and heading away from the police. Watson hurries to catch up with her and falls in step alongside her.

“The man who did this wants to punish me,” Sherlock says, her mind racing but controlled.

“What?” Watson replies.

“He cut my name into the body.”

Watson stops, and Sherlock stops with her, the two of them facing each other. Sherlock has her hands in her coat pockets, and she looms over Watson, five foot ten to Watson’s five four. Watson looks up at her, brow creased in bewilderment. A light rain begins to drizzle onto their shoulders.

“The victim’s homeless,” Sherlock adds.

Watson pauses. “What are we going to do?” she says, almost whispering.

Sherlock knows Watson isn’t asking for the obvious answer. She’s not talking about solving the case. She’s asking her question out of kneejerk fear that has more to do with past threats to Sherlock’s life than this murder.

“Treat this like any other case,” Sherlock says, to herself as much as Watson. “Work it. And stay level-headed.”

Watson nods but doesn’t look any less concerned. “Are you all right?” she says.

Sherlock glances to her left, at Lestrade and the corpse and the other coppers in the distance. “You know the answer to that better than I do, Watson.”

She starts trudging back to the body, grimacing, refusing to make eye contact with Lestrade.

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