"I want to hire Sherlock Holmes to find my sister. Everyone says he's the very best."
I stared at our prospective, if seriously deluded, client Barbara Lowery Bristol as we stood in the foyer of my newly inherited Victorian money pit at 221 Baker Street in San Francisco. It was unclear exactly who she meant by "everyone," since Sherlock Holmes had solved exactly one case. And the "client" in that case had been me. Sure, Mr. Sherlock Holmes, private investigator, had gotten a mention in the San Francisco Chronicle, and the story could have had legs thanks to a few social media shares. But he was hardly a celebrity. Especially considering he didn't actually exist.
Not that that little technicality had stopped my best friend, Irene Adler, from creating an entire business around him. After all, Irene was the queen when it came to business, being one of the Silicon Valley's youngest venture capitalists herself. And she'd sure capitalized on our small and semi-successful run at using the made-up name in the past, quickly creating fake credentials, a website, some business cards with a PO box address, and—voila!—Sherlock Holmes Investigations. I was 50/50 on whether it had been a great idea or a harebrained scheme. Holmes had been born out of necessity, a little desperation, and a lot of boldness. I still wasn't convinced we shouldn't have buried him shortly afterward.
However, my Victorian money pit demanded to be filled, so I smiled at Barbara Lowery Bristol anyway.
"You heard right," Irene told her. "Mr. Holmes is the best. Unfortunately, he isn't available right now, but we'll be happy to present your case to him. I'm Irene Adler, and this is Martha Hudson. We work with Mr. Holmes."
I still marveled at how she could say that without her head bursting into flames. Of course, even if it did, it would probably just add more glimmer to her auburn hair. Irene was the sort of girl they'd modeled Barbie dolls after—only her version had a degree from MIT and too many millions in the bank to need a Ken to support her. We'd met during a lecture about social media's impact on political and economic culture. I'd been crashing it. She'd been giving it. Irene was a computer prodigy turned VC, providing her funds to various start-ups that she deemed promising. So far, like with everything else in her life, she'd had the Midas touch. Irene could make money in her sleep, and probably did. So, while I was in this ruse for the cash, I think she was in it for the kicks.
I gave Barbara my most reassuring smile. "Please call me Marty."
Barbara gathered her lapels with a shiver. "Mr. Holmes certainly keeps it chilly in here, doesn't he?"
"That's just the hole in the roof," Irene said. "It'll warm up when the fog burns off."
"Hole in the…" Barbara's gaze traveled upward.
"It's an old house," I explained. Actually, the truth was, it was an old house, and I was a homeowner without old money to fix it. Or new money. Or any money, really. The last storm had taken what was left of my rotting shingles, leaving me with an unintended skylight over the master bedroom. And since my actual job as a barista at the Stanford University Bookstore Café paid barely enough to keep me in Top Ramen, I'd have to wait until I won the lottery to repair it.
"Why don't we go into the living room and make ourselves comfortable?" I suggested.
Barbara followed us under the foyer's multifaceted (and dusty) crystal chandelier into the living room, where she settled onto the overstuffed sofa, and I shoved the remaining few boxes of inherited junk out of sight with my foot before facing her from the love seat. She didn't look very comfortable. In fact, she hadn't loosened her grip on her lapels, and I knew why. It might have been warmer in a meat locker.
Irene adjusted her off-the-shoulder Stella McCartney dress just a little more on her shoulders, and I got up again to close the ancient insulated drapes. As she readied her laptop on the coffee table, I moved through the room switching on the Tiffany table lamps, pleased to notice I hadn't missed any dust on the end tables while straightening up for Barbara Bristol's appointment.
Irene waited until I'd taken a seat beside her before turning to Barbara. "You mentioned on the phone that your sister is missing?"
Barbara nodded. "Yes."
"Why don't we start with your sister's name."
"Rebecca," she said. "Rebecca Lowery. She was a coloratura."
I blinked at her. A what?
Irene had typed Rebecca Lowery before her fingers hesitated over the keyboard. "I beg your pardon?"
"A coloratura," she repeated. "It's a kind of soprano. Rebecca was an opera singer. She was in rehearsal for the traveling company of Ethereal Love. I'm sure you've heard of it."
"Of course." Irene typed Not a word, then passed me a wry sideways glance from beneath her lashes.
I hadn't heard of it either. In fact, the only thing I knew about opera was that there were sopranos, tenors, and basses. And when the fat lady sang, it was all over.
"The things she could do with her instrument," Barbara said on a sigh. "Have you ever heard a truly gifted coloratura perform? It can bring tears to your eyes."
Is it that bad? Irene typed.
I bit the inside of my cheek to stem a smile. "I'm sure she was wonderful," I said. I was sure of no such thing, being more of a pop-rock girl myself. While I'd crashed a couple of college lectures in the past on the history of classical music, I only had a passing knowledge of Italian, and my German was nicht gut. The nuances of opera were lost on me.
Barbara's hands shook as she worried the handle of her knock-off designer handbag. She wore a gray linen blazer over black cotton slacks and a burgundy blouse with an artificial sheen, which spoke to polyester rather than silk. Low-heeled pumps. A practical outfit for a woman of modest means who'd traveled from Des Moines to look for her missing sister.
"Would you like a glass of water?" I asked her, noticing her discomfort.
Her smile was grateful. "That's very kind. I'm sorry. I'm really not sure what to think right now. I never thought I'd find myself in this situation."
They waited while I retrieved her water from the kitchen, wishing I'd thought to stash some instant coffee or tea bags in a cupboard. It was a little embarrassing to hand over a plain glass of water, sans ice cubes, but Barbara didn't seem to mind. She took an immediate sip and clutched the glass in both hands.
"I'm sure we can find your sister." I kept my voice gentle. "When did you last see her?"
"Alive? Almost five years ago. Not since our mother passed."
Irene looked up sharply. "I'm sorry—did you say 'alive'?"
Her hand faltered as she lowered the glass to the coffee table. "Maybe I wasn't clear," she said. "My sister is dead."
Then she should be easy to find, Irene typed.
I frowned at her. She shrugged and hit the backspace key, deleting the comment.
"Maybe you'd better start from the beginning," I told Ms. Bristol.
She took a deep breath and let it out on a shaky sigh. "On Monday I got a call from the medical examiner's office informing me of Rebecca's death. He was a very kind man. Dr. Watson, I think his name was."
I felt myself flush at the name.
She must have noticed, as she paused and asked, "Do you know him?"
Broad shoulders, thick blond hair, deep blue eyes, pouty lower lip. That Dr. Watson?
"We're familiar with him," I told her, ignoring the tiny smirk Irene shot my way. Barbara Lowery Bristol didn't need to know that Dr. Watson had cost me a few sleepless nights and a couple of distracted days as well. Bad enough that Irene knew it and was not about to let me live it down anytime soon.
Barbara seemed satisfied with that answer. "Well, after speaking with him, I made arrangements with a local mortuary and caught a flight out here to view the…to see her."
"And did you see her?" I asked carefully.
Barbara shook her head. "No. I retained Gordon's Mortuary to start the arrangements. Except…" She hesitated again.
Irene and I traded glances.
"Except?" Irene prodded.
Barbara picked up the glass of water and sipped from it. "When I went to the mortuary," she said, "Rebecca was gone."
I blinked at her, vision of a zombie Rebecca fleeing the scene running through my mind.
"What do you mean 'gone'?" Irene repeated. She typed the word zombie?
I swear it was almost like she was in my head sometimes. I stifled a snicker.
"Well, just gone." Barbara paused. "I don't really know where she is. The ME assured me she was positively identified at the morgue. But the bod—er, person at the funeral home? That wasn't Rebecca. It was some other woman."
"Do you know who the other woman was?" Irene asked.
Barbara shook her head. "Obviously they thought it was my sister."
"So…did the mortuary tell you how they lost her?" I asked.
A small frown formed between her eyebrows. "They didn't, really. Mr. Gordon was very apologetic—"
"I would hope so," Irene muttered.
"—but they can't seem to find Rebecca. No one seems to know what happened. Or at least, they're not telling me."
"Did you call the police?" I asked, thinking that would have been my first move.
She nodded. "I did. I tried to file a missing persons report but…well, I guess that wasn't quite the right division."
Missing Corpses Division? Irene typed.
I ignored her with no small effort. "What did the police say?"
Barbara shook her head. "Not much. I don't think they were taking it very seriously. They said they'd look into it, but I had the feeling they weren't going to look very hard." She paused. "They told me she was already deceased and had already been seen by the ME. She wasn't a priority. That's when I called you."
"And the mortuary has no idea what happened to her?"
Barbara Lowery Bristol shook her head.
"Well," Irene said, "we know one thing that didn't happen. Your sister didn't get up and walk away. No offense intended," she added.
"None taken," Barbara said, though she didn't sound confident about it.
"We don't mean to be insensitive," I said, shooting Irene a look. Ix-nay on the ombies-zay. "But you just said it's been a few years since you've seen your sister. You're sure the woman at the mortuary was not her?"
The ensuing silence swelled into awkwardness before Barbara finally said, "Alright, it's true, my sister and I had been estranged, and I hadn't seen her in years. But she was my sister. I'd recognize her under any circumstances. How could I not?"
I could think of a few circumstances, suddenly wondering how Rebecca had died and what state her body might be in.
"Here." Barbara slid a photograph from her wallet and passed it to me. "This is the most current picture I have."
Rebecca Lowery had been a beauty, her blonde hair swept into an intricate updo over deep brown eyes, sculpted cheekbones, and a generous mouth.
"She was beautiful," Irene said.
"Yes." There was a subtle tension running beneath that single word as Barbara returned the photograph to its sleeve, running a finger over it before closing her wallet. "And she knew how to use her beauty to get what she wanted, even if what she wanted was to get out of trouble. Especially then." Her cheeks reddened, as if she hadn't meant to say that aloud. "It's not entirely her fault she could be difficult. She'd always been spoiled and a drama queen. Especially once her singing started to draw acclaim. In fact, you could call her a bit of a diva."
"I'm sure it goes with the territory," Irene said.
Barbara shrugged. "Look, I don't know if Mr. Holmes handles this type of case."
"He handles any type of case," Irene assured her.
I shot her a look. Mr. Holmes didn't handle any type of case—he'd only handled one before. Or, more accurately, Irene and I had stumbled through one before. And it had been one thing to investigate my own great-aunt's death using Private Investigator Sherlock Holmes to open those doors that had slammed squarely in the face of two curious female civilians. But it was something else entirely to track down a missing corpse. Something morbid. Something I wasn't all that interested in doing, even if it did lead me back to Dr. Watson again. I was content to admire him from afar, despite what the stalker laws said.
My glance lingered on the ancient drapes billowing in the draft from the upstairs where a gaping hole sat in my ancient roof. While the retainer check Barbara had sent wasn't lottery-winnings large, it might be enough to patch a small hole. Maybe even put a down payment on a whole new roof. Heck, if I stretched it, I might even be able to spring for a couple of ice cube trays for the freezer.
"At its heart, this is a simple missing persons matter," Irene said, shooting Barbra a winning smile. "We can get started right away."
"But I thought Sherlock Holmes…" She looked at us uncertainly. "That is, I had hoped to meet Mr. Holmes before…" The thought trailed off again, while the implication hung in the air between us. For whatever reason, she doubted our capability. Smart woman.
"Mr. Holmes travels extensively," Irene said. "But you have nothing to worry about. Marty and I do most of the legwork anyway."
"I see." She hesitated. "I've never hired a private investigator before."
"We'll take care of everything," Irene told her. "We have your contact information, and we'll be in touch very soon."
Barbara took a last bracing sip of water before standing. "I'll wait to hear from you, then. Please call me anytime—day or night—when you find her."
"We will," I promised. "Let us show you out."
Irene and I stood at the door, watching her drive off in her rental sedan.
"What do you think of her?" Irene asked when we'd returned to the living room.
I drew my legs up beneath me on the sofa. "She seemed genuinely upset. And I thought she was credible."
"I agree. She did throw a little shade at Rebecca though."
"That sounded like something that goes way back," I said. "Maybe even as far as childhood. If Rebecca was the pretty one or the golden child in the family, it's only natural that Barbara would resent that a little, with sibling rivalry and all."
"Yeah, I guess so." Irene scrolled through her notes. "A missing corpse. That's a first, huh?"
A first I could have happily done without. "Can we please just call her 'Rebecca'?" I asked with a shudder.
"We can call her anything you want," Irene said. "As long as we find her."
"Where do we start?"
She smiled. "I think you already know the answer to that. Go put on some makeup and skinny jeans. We're going to pay Watson a visit."
* * *
The first time I'd met Dr. Watson, I wasn't sure what kind of impression I'd made. At 5'5" and 120 pounds (give or take, depending on how much pizza I'd consumed that day), I wasn't exactly what you'd consider a bombshell. I was a natural blonde, though in the San Francisco fog I tended more toward frizz than shampoo-commercial curls. And at the time of our first encounter, I'd been practically begging him to release my great-aunt's autopsy report—which I'm sure was a pickup line lots of girls used on cute doctors, right? Unluckily for me, Watson was and is a stickler for rules and regulations and had refused to budge from his official position. Luckily for me, Irene has the imagination of a wizard and dreamed up our employer, Sherlock Holmes. Watson had seemed skeptical at the time. Skepticism that only grew as our boss was perennially absent. I was never quite sure if Watson believed us or just didn't want to deal with the paperwork that catching us in a lie would create.
As I sat across from him in his utilitarian office with its cinderblock walls painted institutional green, his face held much the same expression of semi-belief now.
"Sherlock Holmes is tracking down a missing corpse?" he repeated, giving me a poker-faced stare.
I nodded, feeling a little claustrophobic in the basement office. It offered no personal touches, no plants, no framed diplomas, no family photos of any kind. Overhead fluorescent lighting was a harsh substitute for sunlight, and stark metal file cabinets lined two walls, adding to the cold feel. A desktop computer with an enormous monitor sat on his desk, along with piles of manila file folders and lab reports. For Dr. Watson, business was always good.
"It sounds morbid, I know," I agreed.
"That's one word for it," he replied.
"Her name's Rebecca Lowery," Irene piped up beside me. "She's a blonde. Well, a dead blonde."
I would have rolled my eyes, but I was too busy using them to stare at Watson. Not for the first time, it occurred to me that the man had picked the wrong profession. He was doing a total disservice to female humanity by hiding those looks in a basement every day. His thick blond hair gleamed even under the crappy fluorescents, his pouty lower lip looked practically nibbleable, his startlingly blue eyes, with their feathery little laugh lines, were complemented by a crisp blue chambray shirt that enhanced the muscular lines of his chest and shoulders. His black slacks, while not tight, suggested strong legs. I'd seen those legs in action, chasing an intruder through the backyard of the Victorian. I'd pay to see that again. If I had any money.
I struggled to bring my concentration back to the case. "She's an opera singer."
"Was," Irene added.
"A coloratura soprano," I said.
He nodded. "I'm familiar. She came through here on Monday, and we released the body to the mortuary the next day. Gordon's, I believe it was." He slipped a folder from one of the piles in front of him and flipped it open.
"That's right," Irene said. "Only it wasn't Rebecca at Gordon's when her sister arrived to pay her respects."
Watson frowned. "I'm not sure how that could be."
"Who identified the body here at the morgue?" I asked.
"Her director. She had missed a rehearsal, and when he went to check on her at her home, he found her deceased. He's the one who positively IDed her here." Watson checked the file of papers in front of him. "Phillip Sterling Rossi."
"And you're sure the right body was released the next day?" Irene asked.
He looked up, a shadow darkening his face.
"Never mind," she said quickly. "No offense. We're all professionals here, right?"
His expression suggested he had his doubts about some of us.
"What about the other…decedent," I asked. "The woman at the mortuary who wasn't Rebecca Lowery."
"What about her?" he asked.
"Do you know who she was?"
"No, she didn't come through my offices. Though, unless there had been something odd about her death in the first place, she wouldn't have. You'd have to ask Gordon's who she is."
"What was the cause of death?"
"For Rebecca?" He referred to his notes. "Occipital blunt force trauma. According to the police report, she slipped and struck her head on the corner of a granite countertop."
Granite countertops were the holy grail in my own fantasy kitchen, along with cherry cabinets, stainless steel appliances, and a gorgeous natural stone floor. But death by granite countertop was a new and tragic possibility I'd never considered. One small vote for keeping the chipped Formica.
"So it was accidental," Irene murmured.
He gave a single nod. "I explained to the sister"—he referred to his notes again—"Barbara Bristol, that Ms. Lowery hadn't been the victim of foul play. I'd assumed that was understood when she left."
"It was," I assured him. "She hired us to locate her sister's remains, nothing more."
"Did you do an autopsy?" Irene pressed.
I shot her a look.
Watson paused. "Partial. We did an external examination, drew bodily fluids, and ran a tox screen. But based on the obvious injuries and my discussion with the detective involved about how the deceased was found, we determined a full autopsy wasn't warranted."
"How was she found?" Irene asked.
"In a position consistent with a fall. If you want more details, you'll have to ask Detective Lestrade," he offered.
I shuddered at the idea. Lestrade was an SFPD detective with a long case list and a short temper. While his office rivaled a tornado in terms of organization, I knew he wasn't as dumb as he looked. The farther we kept "Sherlock Holmes" from Lestrade, the better chance Irene and I had of not ending up in a jail cell.
"Do you know how long she'd been dead?" I asked, trying to construct a timeline.
"Hard to pinpoint exactly, but based on liver temp, I'd say she'd died sometime late Saturday night or early Sunday morning."
"And you're positive the same body that came into your morgue left to go to Gordon's?" Irene pressed.
Watson closed his notes with a little more force than was strictly necessary. "Yes, as I've told everyone, Rebecca Lowery's body was properly tagged when it left this office."
I jumped on that first part of the sentence. "Everyone? Has someone else contacted you about Rebecca Lowery?"
He paused, shooting me a look that said he'd be watching his wording around me in the future. "Yes," he admitted. "A reporter."
I felt my eyebrows rise. Had Barbara Bristol been contacting the press as well as engaging a private investigator? "What did he want?"
Watson pinched the bridge of his nose with a sigh. "A story, I guess. He showed up here yesterday with a lot of questions about how we could lose a body."
"What did you tell him?" Irene asked.
"Nothing at all," he said. "Just that Rebecca's body left here, and what happened to it after that is out of my hands. But he made threats of a coming FOIA request."
"FOIA?" Irene repeated.
"Freedom of Information Act," I supplied. "But your records wouldn't fall under FOIA, would they?"
"Doubtful," Dr. Watson said. "HIPAA privacy rules extend fifty years past date of death, but there have been rulings that records requests supersede HIPAA. I would consider it an invasion of personal privacy, but of course, I'm bound by the law." He stood. "Was there anything else?"
"One thing," Irene said. "What kind of window are we talking about between the time Rebecca's was positively IDed here and when her sister saw Not-Her at Gordon's Mortuary?"
He steepled his hands. "The decedent was received at this office on Monday, positively identified by Mr. Rossi that evening, released to Gordon's Mortuary on Tuesday morning. That's all I know."
"Which means," Irene said, "Gordon's lost her." She paused. "Unless the hearse was carjacked after they picked her up and Rebecca's now doing a Weekend at Bernie's thing on Venice Beach."
Watson stared at her. "That ghoulishness must be such a comfort to your clients. But I highly doubt that's what happened."
"Agreed," Irene said. "Who'd carjack a hearse? Not a big market for parts there."
I resisted the urge to kick her in the shin.
"You know," I said, more to myself than anyone else. "A body is a pretty big thing to just lose. I mean, it's not like car keys."
Irene turned to me, one eyebrow raised. "What are you saying?"
"I'm saying, I can see maybe accidentally mixing two bodies up and thinking the other woman was Rebecca…but in that case Rebecca would be where the other woman is supposed to be now. And presumably she's not. How do you accidentally lose a body altogether?"
"You think someone took Rebecca Lowery?" Watson said slowly.
"But why would someone steal a dead body?" Irene asked.
"I can't imagine." His gaze remained steady. "That's where Mr. Holmes comes in, right?"
Right. If only he would.
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