marysutherland: (Sherlock and John)
[personal profile] marysutherland
BBC Sherlock fic

Rating 12 (gen, mild swearing and adult situations)

Summary: A French decathlete's had a breakdown, but Sherlock has a match-box that may explain it all.

Inspired by one of the cases mentioned in The Sign of Three.

Betaed by Small Hobbit.


The thing about Sherlock is that when he says something is "baffling" or "inexplicable," that often just means that he's already worked out 90% of what's happened, but is unduly bothered by the remaining 10% of the puzzle that still doesn't fit. So when we got a case involving an athlete called Isidore Persano who was found surrounded by 1,812 matchboxes, one of which contained a genetically-modified worm, what bothered him most was that 1,812 divided by 365 is nearly 5. (Well, it's 4.964383561 recurring, if you're going to be precise, which Sherlock normally is).

I should probably say before I go any further that you mustn't believe anything you read on the internet about this case. Including if I ever get round to doing a blog post about it. The NSA and GCHQ only spend half their time monitoring what everyone's doing on the internet; the other half is Mycroft having stuff put up there to mislead or distract the general public. I know for a fact that he's invented at least two Kardashians. And after this case was over Mycroft told me I couldn't say anything about what actually happened or when or to whom, so I'm planning at some point to make up a load of bollocks to put on my blog to deal with the rumours. But what Sherlock really did is far more impressive than anything I could invent.

***

The first thing I knew about it all was meeting DI Stanislaw Hopkins coming down the stairs of 221B one afternoon as I was returning from doing some shopping. I can't remember if I've mentioned him on the blog before or not. Greg Lestrade's our contact man in Homicide and Serious Crimes Command, so we get a lot of cases from him. But for less serious crimes it depends on us having someone in a specific borough crime command who'll work with us. Fortunately, in Westminster we've got Stan, who's a big fan of Sherlock's.

"Got something good for you two this time, John," he told me. "French bloke found off his rocker in a hotel on Praed Street with thousands of matchboxes round him."

"I bought some coffee and biscuits, if you want to stay," I told him. Stan often likes to watch Sherlock doing his deducing – I think he imagines he'll somehow learn enough to be able to do it himself. It's no use me pointing out that it doesn't work like that for us ordinary people.

"Thanks, but I need to get home," he said, smiling wearily. "But I promised Sherlock I'd get some of the evidence to him today, and my DC screwed up and didn't bring the photos round, the pillock. Tell Sherlock I'll make sure we sort that out first thing tomorrow."

"OK. I can come down to the station in the morning and pick them up, if that's easier."

"No, I'll get them e-mailed over. But apologies in advance, it's just camera-phone stuff. Our forensics budget is in the red, so we're stuck with DIY work till we're sure the whole incident's not gonna be no-crimed."

"So possibly there's been no actual crime?" I asked.

"Dunno yet. No idea what's going on, really, but I've told Sherlock what we've got so far, so I hope he can work it out. Sorry, but I've really gotta go, or my other half'll do his nut."

As he banged the outside door to, I picked up my grocery bags and headed up our seventeen stairs, feeling distinctively positive about the rest of the day.

***

 Of course, when I got upstairs, Sherlock was in "thinking mode", just sitting in his chair, staring at a matchbox. Presumably that was the evidence that Stan had delivered. Sherlock wouldn't say anything to me, so I stashed the shopping, made myself some tea, sorted out my e-mail backlog, and then tried and failed to do a bit more of the Telegraph cryptic crossword. But after a few hours Sherlock was showing distinct signs of emerging from his mind palace, to my experienced eye, so I asked him:

"What is that?"

He frowned at the matchbox a bit more and replied:

"A French decathlete found completely out of his mind, surrounded by one thousand, eight hundred and twelve matchboxes, all empty except this one."

"And what's in that one?"

"Inexplicable," Sherlock replied, and then he opened the matchbox, which emitted an odd light as he did so. Sherlock started to smile.

"Radioactive?" I asked, trying to remember where our Geiger counter was currently lurking.

"No," he said, still smiling.

"Incredibly dangerous in some other way?" I asked, because some of Sherlock's enemies put extremely nasty things into small packages and post them to him.

"Not immediately, at least."

"Not quite the reassurance I was wanting, but never mind. So what exactly is inside there?" I asked, coming round to stare over his shoulder.

"As you can see, a worm."

It did look pretty much like a smallish earthworm, except for one thing.

"It's glowing," I pointed out. "Worms don't glow. Not even glow-worms, which aren't worms anyhow." There is no knowledge so obscure that it mightn't come in handy during one of Sherlock's cases.

"Genetically engineered bioluminescence, obviously. The worm itself, from a superficial look, is probably Lumbricus rubellus. Unfortunately, we don't have time for me to investigate its DNA thoroughly."

Just what we needed: a worm with a deadline.

"So what happens if we don't solve this one quickly enough?" I asked. "Are we looking at vermicide here? Is that poor worm a goner already?"

Sherlock looked round at me. "I mean that my brother will doubtless appear at some point today to retrieve it."

"It's his worm?"

"Not exactly, but he knows the owners."

"OK," I said. "Then you'd probably better tell me as much as you know before he comes, so I can laugh in the right places when you make jokes at his expense."

As I suspected, that promptly moved Sherlock on from mysterious hints to explaining the case.

"Isidore Persano is currently the best decathlete in France," he announced. "Not a difficult feat to achieve, but never mind. Age twenty-seven, failed to qualify for the Beijing Olympics, but came third in the World Championships last month and would have done even better but for his appalling tactical misjudgement in the 1500 metres. Arrived on the Eurostar from Lille yesterday evening, and checked into an upmarket hotel in Praed Street shortly after 8 p.m. He appeared to be behaving erratically, but the hotel staff presumed he was tired after his journey. Late this morning Persano was found by the chambermaid with a large number of matchboxes, but apparently without his marbles. Just sitting there staring at this worm and saying nothing."

I didn't point out who else could be counted as having mental health problems under that definition. Besides, I didn't have time to, because we were now clearly onto the meat of the problem.

"Hopkins promised me some photos from the crime scene, but his team are obviously completely incompetent and haven't brought them," Sherlock went on. "I presume Persano was taken to A and E at St Mary's Paddington initially, since it's right on Praed Street, but he might have been moved since then. So all I have to go on at the moment is this worm and the matchbox itself. Both of which, of course, are immediately–"

"–I think it's trying to escape," I broke in, because I didn't want to have to spend the whole evening chasing a luminous worm round 221B. It's the sort of thing that gets comments from Mrs Hudson.

Sherlock closed the box again and then handed it to me.

"So what can we deduce from the box itself?" he asked.

I stared at the matchbox. I suspected the worm inside had more clue as to what was going on than I did. I tried to think of something remotely intelligent to say and then spotted one vaguely unusual thing about the box.

"Redheads. It's not a brand I've seen before."

"It's an Australian brand, though they're now manufactured in Sweden."

"Right."

An intense silence from Sherlock followed, indicating that I had completely missed the point.

"He's an international athlete," I said. "Could well have been to Australia and brought this back as a souvenir."

"The design is a special issue, dating from 1998."

I don't let my first theory being shot down bother me anymore.

"Maybe he's a collector then," I said. "Would explain how come he's got eighteen hundred empty matchboxes handy. It'd be a lot of smoking otherwise, even for a French athlete."

"As I said, I don't yet have any pictures from the scene, but I did question DI Hopkins in some detail about both the labels and the arrangement within the room of the remaining one thousand, eight hundred and eleven matchboxes," Sherlock replied firmly.

No wonder poor Stan had done a runner, I thought. "Anything useful from that?"

"Provided that his recollection is at least vaguely accurate, the arrangement itself has no particular significance and the brands that Hopkins could recall were mostly modern British ones, with numerous one of the same type."

"OK. So Persano's found eighteen hundred...eighteen hundred and twelve matchboxes and put a bizarre worm in one of them."

"Oh no, not just one worm. If you find a large number of similar matchboxes, in one of which a person has placed an unusual object, what do you hypothesise about the next matchbox in his possession that you find?"

"That on average it's unlikely to hold a luminous worm?" It was turning into a Q and A session, was it? Well, more a Q and humiliating inability to A session, as usual.

"We're not talking statistics here, but psychology. Why would a man fill only one of a large collection of boxes?"

I was within an inch of saying, He's playing "Hunt the Worm", but I somehow resisted. Because now I came to think about it, it was slightly more plausible that there had been something in all of the boxes.

"He collects worms?" I said instead. "Or creepy-crawlies, or just small things that you can put in a matchbox. Some kind of OCD, perhaps?"

"But that brings us to a more basic question," Sherlock replied enthusiastically. "Why put a bioluminescent worm in a matchbox specifically?"

So where do you normally keep one, I thought, frantically searching my mind for any thoughts on good worm-holders.

"It's easy to carry like that, I suppose," I began. "It's not very strong though. A 35 mm film container might be better, and it'd be harder for the worm to escape from it. But worms need to breathe, don't they? And I don't know why you'd have loads of matchboxes rather than one big worm carrier."

"Surely that's obvious?" Sherlock replied. "Consider the basics of earthworm reproduction."

I did a further desperate trawl of my memory, because Sherlock now had the air of I can wait all night for you to answer this one.

"They're hermaphrodites," I said at last. "So you put any two worms together and you end up with more worms pretty soon. Oh...and you've got genetically-modified worms to start with. You let them breed, and next thing you know you've got a Frankenworm a foot long and glowing enough to light up the room."

That brought a faint smile to Sherlock's lips. "Your science is a little hazy, but the principle is right, yes. You want to avoid interbreeding and probably cross-contamination. So the worms need to be kept in individual containers. But why not a suitably ventilated plastic container, which, as you've pointed out, would be more secure? What advantage does a matchbox have over that?"

Most of the time, Sherlock just wants someone – normally me – to listen to him showing off about his deductions. Sometimes, though, he wants someone – normally me – to learn something, and it's like the most terrifying lesson you've ever had. The ones at medical school where a senior consultant asks for your diagnosis and you abruptly find you're unable even to remember what a symptom is.

"Well it's not lupus," I muttered to myself, and tried to think. I thought up four different reasons why the matchbox was less good than a plastic container, and then finally an argument on the other side. "The worms might be allergic to plastic?"

"Ingenious, but almost certainly wrong." Sherlock's voice took on an unfamiliar patient tone. "Try a different question. If you see someone with a 35 mm film canister in their pocket, what do you immediately think is in it?"

"Possibly a roll of film or else something small and delicate."

"And if you see someone with a matchbox in their pocket, what do you immediately think is in it?"

"Matches...Right, I think I see now. People still use matches, but they don't normally use 35 mm film. So..."

"So if you want to carry round something unobtrusively...?" Sherlock prompted.

"You put it in a matchbox, not a film canister or some other plastic container," I said and then it suddenly hit me. Well, OK, dawned on me slowly and painfully, by Sherlock's standards. But I made an actual deduction.

"Persano's an athlete," I said. "He was carrying round something he didn't want other people to know about and it's a genetically-engineered worm. This is something to do with performance-enhancing drugs, isn't it?"

"Seems most likely," Sherlock replied, frowning. "Unfortunately, the timing doesn't fit."

"So is Mycroft now running the Anti-Doping Agency as well?" I asked, and then Sherlock's previous statement finally registered. "What do you mean, the timing doesn't fit?"

"There are one thousand, eight hundred and twelve matchboxes, yet the Beijing Olympics finished only one thousand, one hundred and thirty-six days ago."

I thought about that for a while. "You mean if he's started taking something, he'd have done it after the Olympics, when he hadn't got anywhere? But you said he didn't qualify for them. Maybe he realised a long time before that he wasn't getting anywhere, that he'd have to cheat if he wanted to win."

"He'd have had to start in 2006, and there was no obvious improvement by the summer of 2008. Sportsmen aren't usually that patient."

I didn't have any sensible ideas. Which meant it was time for me to try and come up with stupid suggestions, because that might help Sherlock anyhow, prompt some inspiration.

"He was on more than one worm a day?" I suggested. "By the way, is he eating these worms or smoking them or something else even more disgusting?"

"Nine hundred and six days is too short a period," Sherlock said. "Besides, there was only one matchbox with a worm in it, which Persano was holding. That implies that he had not yet had his daily dose. And even Hopkins' team might have noticed if his lips were glowing immediately after eating one of these."

I didn't ask how he knew the bit about glowing lips. I didn't want to know and I was pretty sure the last surviving worm didn't want to hear either. And – oh shit – I was now worrying about a luminous worm's feelings. I told myself to concentrate on human psychology, not that of worms. So I sat there for a while wondering how desperate you'd have to be to eat eighteen hundred worms. Maybe pretty desperate, if you thought you'd get a gold medal out of it. Wouldn't be the first athlete to wreck his health, would he?

"Maybe Persano was only supposed to take one a day," I suggested, "but he overdosed. Thought if he took more he'd get fitter even quicker. And maybe that's why whatever happened to him happened."

"We can certainly keep that as a working hypothesis for now," Sherlock replied, which almost counted as a compliment from him. "Whatever was happening with the dosage, the World Championships must have been a wake-up call for Persano."

"But he came third!" I protested.

"After a monumental error of judgement. I expect it was then that he realised his mental processes were being affected. Probably came over to talk to his suppliers as soon as he could fit it into his schedule."

"His suppliers are British?"

"DI Hopkins didn't recall seeing any French matchboxes, although granted his visual memory is no more than sixty-five percent accurate." Sherlock's face creased into a snarl. "If only the Met weren't so incompetent and I had the pictures!"

"You don't need the pictures," I said, trying to sound soothing. "You know what happened already, you can see it in your own mind. But I'm still baffled. For a start, why did Persano keep all the matchboxes?"

"He'd been told to, most likely," Sherlock said, more calmly. "The worms were probably already in boxes when he received them, though I'm not yet sure how they were delivered overseas. But his suppliers would have wanted to make sure that all materials that had come into contact with the worms were eventually returned to them for disposal. Covering their traces but, as usual, ineffectively."

"What do you mean?"

"There's no proof, of course, but we've already established a lot about the perpetrators of this fraud, haven't we? Interest in genetic engineering of bioluminescence, hazy sense of ethics, careless about the mental effects of their concoctions. And the possibility that some of their researchers have spent a substantial amount of their early career overseas, and thus might come back with an American turn of phrase or an Australian matchbox."

"You don't mean..." I began.

"–Isidore Persano was booked into a hotel in Praed Street," Sherlock broke in, "which, while not the most attractive location in Central London,  is ideally placed for Paddington Station. That suggests that he was planning to take the train on from there, but not to a relatively close destination, such as Bristol or even to Exeter, which he could still have reached that evening. Instead–"

"–Instead he was going to get the train down to Totnes, change for Ivybridge and then hire a taxi to take him to Baskerville, wasn't he? It's another of their bloody stupid experiments."

Sherlock nodded, and then said, smiling broadly. "Which is why we can now hear Mycroft's elephantine footsteps below. This is going to be fun, isn't it?"

***

I'm not allowed to reveal the contents of that meeting. Mycroft has made unsubtle hints that if ever I do so I'd be typing with less than two fingers in future. That is if they have keyboards in Guantanamo Bay. I'll just say that Mycroft went off with the matchbox when he left and that the worm was probably feeling happier than he was at that point. And also that, for once, it was me who got the best line at Mycroft's expense. When I told him that he'd better hope that Boris Johnson never found out about Baskerville's plan to help a Frenchman win gold at the London Olympics.

It was, of course, even funnier watching Sherlock trying to pretend he knew who Boris Johnson was.

***

Stan's lot didn't send the photos of the hotel the next day, either, but since we were off the case already, it didn't seem to matter. I texted Stan to say it was all hush-hush, but nothing he needed to worry about. I knew Sherlock wouldn't bother to let him know what happened.

Three days later, Sherlock was having a shower when he suddenly started yelling through the door at me.

"Bring your phone, John. I've solved our mystery at last and I need to text Hopkins!"

I made him get out of the shower before I let him have the phone. He's ruined several mobiles of mine trying to shower and phone simultaneously. At least now he knows not to run round the flat dripping wet, shouting "Eureka" when he has those inspirations. Mrs Hudson didn't see the funny side of that at all.

"Not one thousand, eight hundred and twelve but eighteen-twelve," Sherlock announced to me, stepping out of the bath.

"Right," I said. It's always a bit tricky knowing what to say on these occasions. "So we're talking matchboxes here, are we?"

"We're talking police incompetence," Sherlock replied.  He punched in a text, sent it off and then handed the phone back to me. When I checked, it said:

Replace your newest constable. He may have a history degree, but he cuts too many corners. SH

"So this is about one of Stan's boys not getting the photos he promised to you," I said. I find it saves time if I state the things that even I can work out, so Sherlock can decide how patronising he has to be. "But why must it be the newest constable?"

"Any of Hopkins' team might in theory be responsible for taking pictures at the scene. But who would get landed with checking and counting all the matchboxes there?"

I thought for a moment and the answer was obvious.

"Right. The lowest down the pecking order. But why do you think it's a history graduate?"

"He supposedly counted up nearly two thousand matchboxes individually and yet he repeatedly forgot to bring the photos to me? Implausible. It's far more likely that he didn't count up all the matchboxes – or lost track while doing so – and hence did not dare let me see the photos, since I would spot the discrepancy immediately."

The constable must have presumed that most people wouldn't really worry about the exact number, so he didn't have to go back and check again. And then panicked when he realised that Sherlock would notice what he'd done.

"So it could have been the right number of matchboxes after all," I said. "For one worm a day, I mean."  A worm a day keeps your opponents away. It was the worms, really, I felt sorry for, more than the DC. He'd have to up his game anyhow if he was working for Stan; Stan's big on keenness.

"If he'd only said around eighteen hundred, he might have got away with it," Sherlock said. "Hard to estimate numbers exactly; I'd probably just have presumed he was incompetent, not fraudulent. But the man wanted to sound as if he'd done his job and it's hard to remember a truly random number. Eighteen-twelve, John and Persano's French. I suppose even a policeman would realise that seventeen eighty-nine would sound a bit too obvious."

"1812," I said, nodding, as I finally worked it out. "Napoleon's retreat from Moscow. So that's why you think he's a history graduate. Or I suppose he could just like classical music."

Looking back, that was probably my sole original deduction of the entire case. So of course, Sherlock ignored it.

"A new recruit but thinks he can pull the wool over DI Hopkins' eyes," he went one. "A lot of confidence, suggests he's better-educated than most of his colleagues, and also doesn't fancy having to do the boring bits of police work. Hence probably graduate-entry, carelessness in tedious numerical tasks suggests arts rather than science background–"

"But who says it's a he, anyhow?" I interrupted. "Could be a woman."

Sherlock gave me a withering look. "A newly-appointed policewoman would be more conscientious. In fact, the more educated women are, the more conscientious they tend to be in junior positions. No, it takes a certain sense of entitlement for someone to try something like that. A man who knows he's much cleverer than others around him is always tempted to think he can get away with all sorts of careless behaviour. But he'll inevitably trip himself up and pay for it in the end."

***

It was that line of Sherlock's about entitlement that really stuck with me from the case. Probably because three weeks later he tripped himself up with his own carelessness, and he paid for it the hard way: jumping off a building. But two years later, Sherlock's back from the dead and it's going to be just like it always was again. Is it any surprise that my sympathies have always been with that poor sod of a worm?
   
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