Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Brash Blonde - Chapter Sixteen

I didn't know how long I'd been unconscious, and I didn't know how I'd gotten from the floor to the sofa. But I had a guess when I opened my eyes and saw Watson leaning over me, worry etched into every plane of his face. Up close those planes were even better looking, especially his mouth. The asymmetry of his lips worked for him. Worked for me too. I let myself linger in the gray area between unconscious and aware, where it was still socially acceptable to stare at his mouth.

"Miss Hudson, can you hear me?"

"Mm-hmm," I murmured. Better yet, I could see him.

"Do you know where you are right now?"

I made a move to sit up, but he stopped me with a hand on my shoulder. "Not just yet."

Oh, okay. Right. It would be easier for him to plant one on me with those adorable asymmetrical lips of his if I was horizontal.

"Do you know where you are?" he repeated.

I tried to smile, but it felt wobbly. "The carousel of criminals."

He frowned at me. "Excuse me?"

I shook my head. That felt wobbly too. In fact, my whole body felt a little wobbly. I reached up to feel the back of my skull. I already had a small egg there. I wondered if I had a concussion. I didn't feel fuzzy headed, but I began reciting the alphabet in my head, forward and backwards, just to be sure. I only got to X going backwards. Which meant nothing. I always only got to X going backwards. So I counted down from twenty to one, and then I remembered my Social Security number and my mom's phone number and Irene's address. That seemed good enough for me.

"I'm at 221 Baker Street," I said. "This is the house I inherited from my great-aunt Kate." I hesitated. "But what are you doing here?"

Relief smoothed his features. "In all honesty, I wanted to check on you. I had a suspicion that if your boss told you about those skateboarders in the park, you might do something stupid, like confront them."

Oh. He must mean those skateboarders in the park that I'd confronted. That hadn't been so stupid. That had been much less stupid than breaking into Sunshine's yoga studio. I wasn't going to admit to that either. Come to think of it, I'd had lots of stupid items on my to-do list recently, and I'd managed to get to all of them.

I let my eyes go wide. "What skateboarders?"

"Not important," he said. "Can you tell me what happened?"

I shook my head, carefully. "All I know is I turned to lock the front door after I came in, and someone bashed me in the head."

He rubbed a hand along his jawline. His eyes were flinty. "This can't continue, Miss Hudson."

Was he saying this was my fault? I hadn't hit myself on the head. I glared at him. "What can't continue? Entering my own house?"

"Staying here. Alone. You can't do it."

"I can't do it?" I repeated.

His eyes softened. "Let's just say I would prefer that you didn't. Not until we figure out what's going on here."

We? That sounded like an offer of help. I wouldn't mind getting a little help from Watson. He had experience. He had knowledge. He had killer good looks. And he wasn't wrong. I'd been lucky so far. That luck could run out at any time.

It almost had.

He had his cell phone to his ear. "221 Baker Street," he was saying. He listened for a moment. "That's right. Thank you." He disconnected. "The police are on the way."

"The police?" I sat up again. "Do you think that's necessary?"

"Yes, Miss Hudson, I do," he said. "This is the second time someone has broken into this place. That you know of."

"Marty," I said absently. A shiver ran through me. I hadn't considered that break-ins might also have happened while I was away, but it was entirely possible. There were plenty of days and nights that the house sat empty. Still, it wasn't BuckinghamPalace. How long could it take to find something in a house this size? These multiple return visits didn't suggest to me a blazing intellect.

Unless what he was looking for was me.

Oh boy.

"Tell me something," Watson said. "Was the door locked when you got here? Did you have to unlock it to come in?"

I pulled my focus back to the issue at hand. "I'm sure it was. I wouldn't have come in otherwise."

His expression was pure skepticism. "Even though you're a ninja private investigator?"

Oh, good. Humor at inappropriate times. Just what the situation called for.

"Laugh all you want," I told him. "But this is a serious situation."

Someone knocked on the front door. Watson went to answer it and came back with Detective Lestrade and an entourage of two other officers. Lestrade hadn't changed much. His brown suit hung on his gaunt frame without flattering it. His eyes were watchful. He had the barest traces of a five o'clock shadow.

Lestrade directed the first officer to the back door. The second one broke off and went upstairs. I heard him moving from room to room, clearing the house.

Lestrade sat on the far end of the sofa. Watson pulled a wing chair close to me and sat down, leaning forward on his forearms. Maybe I was wrong, but that felt like a protective stance.

"Why don't you tell me what happened?" Lestrade said.

As usual, he didn't seem all that interested, but I told him anyway. He made some notes without interrupting. No nodding, no head shaking, no stony are-you-kidding-me stares. When I was done, he said, "Have any kind of description?"

I shook my head. "He came up behind me. I never saw him."

"A trained investigator like you noticed no details?"

That again.

"Maybe you saw a sleeve," he said. "A hand. A flash of color."

I was seeing a flash of color, alright. Red. "I told you, I was attacked from behind."

"I guess even trained PIs can be ambushed," he said.

I pressed my lips together and didn't say anything.

After a moment, he said, "I understand this is the second time."

I glanced at Watson and nodded. "I don't know what they could be looking for."

"Maybe nothing." Lestrade snapped his notebook shut. "Could be a crime of opportunity. Empty house, iffy neighborhood. It happens."

I bristled. Iffy neighborhood?

"I don't think it's random," Watson cut in. "Who would risk repeatedly breaking into the same house? She could have gotten a security system after the first time. Or a dog."

My thoughts went immediately to Toby, living the good life at Sunshine Moonbeam's house. And then they went to Sunshine Moonbeam. No way she could have beaten me to the house. She only thought she had a magic carpet. She was 70-something years old, after all. I'd like to think I could walk faster than a 70-something-year-old.

Except I'd taken the scenic route back to the house; I hadn't followed a direct path. Pretty much anyone could have gotten back ahead of me.

"It seems that someone is after something here," Watson was saying.

"Or someone," I added. That someone would have to be me. I wondered if that meant I was getting close to the killer. Unfortunately, the killer was putting a whole lot more stock in my deductive abilities than he should, since I still had no idea who he was. Or she.

I was suddenly having second thoughts about the whole PI thing. I was no PI, ninja or otherwise. I was a barista who lived in a grimy apartment building and had a best friend with too much imagination and time on her hands.

I realized Watson was staring at me with a frown. So it hadn't occurred to him that I might be the target. I wished it hadn't occurred to me.

The first uniformed officer ducked back into the room. "Looks like the back door was forced open," he informed his superior.

Lestrade didn't look surprised. "Let's get it dusted for prints," he directed.

The officer nodded and disappeared toward the back again.

Lestrade stood. "We'll let you know if anything comes up on the prints. And we'll send an extra patrol car around. Keep an eye on the place. Meantime, you might want to think about staying somewhere else."

"That's it?" I stared at him. "An extra patrol car?"

"If we get a hit from IAFIS, I'll look into it," he said. "Until then, it's the best I can do." He nodded in Watson's direction and then left.

Watson and I sat in silence for a couple of beats.

"He was very helpful," Watson said finally.

I looked at him.

"I never realized what a people person Detective Lestrade is," he said.

I grinned. Watson had a sense of humor. Who knew?

"At any rate, since I'm the one without the head injury," he continued, "I'm going to insist that you don't sleep alone tonight."

Finally, the sign of life I'd been waiting for. Not exactly the way I'd imagined the grand seduction taking place, but it was better than nothing. I wasn't going to argue if he wanted to keep me awake for my own good.

"Someone needs to watch you for signs of a concussion," he said.

That was kind of cute; he felt like he had to make excuses. We could call it doctor's orders. That was good enough for me. I tried to remember if I had enough clean towels in the linen closet upstairs. And were the bed sheets fresh? And was it too early to go to bed?

The front door opened again, and Irene yelled, "Marty?"

Watson stood up. "I called your colleague to take you home with her for the night."

It just wasn't my day.

* * *

"I can't believe this." Irene dropped her keys on the quartz countertop and headed for the refrigerator. "Do you have any idea who might have done it?"

I sat on a stool facing her and leaned on my elbows. "None. I didn't even get a glimpse before I was knocked out."

She poured apple juice into a glass and shoved it over to me before pouring herself a glass of wine. "This is scary stuff, Marty. You could have been really hurt. Or worse."

I didn't want to go there. I looked at the glass. "Apple juice? Really?"

"Doctor's orders," she said. She slid onto a stool. "Speaking of which, imagine my surprise when Watson called. What was he doing there anyway?"

"Saving me from myself, apparently." I took a sip. Wine would have been better. "He was afraid I'd confront the skateboarders."

"Which of course you did."

"Which of course I did," I agreed. "And I also found Toby."

Her eyes went wide. "What? Don't tell me Rabid took him. Is he okay?"

"Better than okay," I said. "He looks great. He's with Sunshine." I told her about my visit to the yoga studio and my conversation with the former Valerie Abbott.

Irene was on her second glass of wine by the time I stopped talking. "This is incredible," she said. "I remember seeing an article on Facebook about her. Sunshine is Valerie Abbott. Wow." She shook her head. "Kate sure lived a colorful life."

That was putting it mildly. I wondered how she'd gone from independent call girl to cranky hoarder.

"So Sunshine was afraid that Kate would expose her and ruin her?" Irene tapped the rim of her glass against her lower teeth, thinking. "That's certainly possible. She had a lot to lose. I looked into the studio closer, and it turns out Sunshine's net worth is into seven figures." She noticed my surprise. "Diversification's the name of her game. We know she wasn't always teaching yoga in the park. She was a businesswoman who apparently invested well." She smirked. "It seems Sunshine knows what time it is after all."

I dug a pen and scrap paper from my handbag. "So we've got Sunshine, Rabid, and Albert Fong." I wrote down their names. "Kate got Rabid arrested. And she might have threatened to expose Sunshine as Valerie Abbott." I jotted these factoids next to each name as potential motives.

"And then there's Albert Fong," Irene said. "Mr. Mafia. Maybe Kate knew a little too much about his criminal dealings."

I thought of the ginger lily under her nails. "She might have even found evidence at the tea shop that would incriminate him of a crime."

Irene nodded her agreement.

"Sunshine overheard Kate telling Albert Fong that she was going to put a stop to criminal activity in the park," I said. "She took it personally, but maybe that comment wasn't about her at all."

"Maybe it was about him," Irene agreed. "It's starting to sound like Albert Fong's our guy."

And not for the first time. Which meant potentially tangling with Heckle and Jeckle again. I wasn't ready for that. I might never be ready for that.

Still, as much as I distrusted Albert Fong, something didn't add up. Problem was, I couldn't quite put my finger on what that something was. I felt like it was dangling right at the edge of my memory, but when I reached for it, it evaporated.

Irene was watching me. "What's wrong?"

I sighed. "I'm overlooking something. I can feel it."

"What you're feeling is that watermelon on the back of your head," she said. "I'm sure it'll come to you in the morning. Why don't you go on up to bed? I'll check on you every hour just like the doctor ordered. I have some work to do that'll keep me up most of the night anyway."

"That sounds like a good idea." I slid off the stool. "It's not more Sherlock Holmes work, is it?"

"Don't knock Mr. Holmes," she said. "He's helping us find a killer."

I touched my head with a grimace. "Well, I wish he'd hurry it up."

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