Restricted Access

by Mintaka

4/2/06

Sherlock Holmes, all senses on the alert, examined the front door of 221 Baker Street with all due care and deliberation. His companion, the robotic Watson, snorted. It was the result of a sound sample instead of respiration, true, but it made its point.

"You look as though you expect an attack," Watson added disgustedly.

"I do. It has been a week since my... hm... prank on Lestrade, and she has not yet retaliated."

"Perhaps she has forgiven you."

Now it was Holmes' turn to snort, and add, "As one who has had to face the severest retaliation for pranks from both my brothers -- Sherrinford preferring the physical, Mycroft the mental -- I assure you that I have no desire of learning Lestrade's methods by letting them take effect on me."

At last satisfied with his examination, Holmes opened the door and walked inside. Then he began examining the stair.

Watson shook his head. "Why not simply apologize? If you would tell me the nature of the prank, perhaps I could suggest some course of action. I have known Lestrade longer than you have, and I assure you that she has a very soft heart beneath it all."

Holmes closed his eyes. "Yes, I know. This is probably the only reason why the world did not read my obituary the other day. And as I have explained to you, I have been threatened rather comprehensively with death should I reveal any of the details of that... prank. I have no desire to find out her methods in that respect, either."

This was, in essence, true. As they made their slow progress up the stairs and into the sitting room, Holmes privately conceded that he was also justly nervous about Watson's reaction to what he had done. It had not been a prank. He wasn't sure what to call it.

He had been acting perfectly logically at first. He had been tending Lestrade's houseplants in her absence, as he and Watson had been asked to do. He had seen that the plants did not seem to thrive under his care and taken the small liberty of treating the plants with a growth formula of his own devising. This had worked so well that he had been forced to repot the plants and put them out on Lestrade's balcony, where they quickly came to resemble a small tropical jungle. He left them there to astonish Lestrade upon her return, fully prepared to replace the plants for her.

But then Lestrade had returned home early from the training conference. He had expected her arrival to be heralded by flashing eyes appearing on his phone screen as she demanded to know what had happened to her plants. Instead, the unwonted London heat wave and her own travel fatigue had apparently made a small jungle's shade look like a welcome place for a nap.

Thus far, all would have been well. But Lestrade, confident of the privacy assured by the thickness of the verdure in all directions, had also decided that the heat of the day made clothes superfluous. Thus, when Holmes had arrived to water and tend the plants, he had found her sleeping thus.

He still didn't know what had come over him. Yes, the scene had been unexpectedly enchanting, even considered simply for the pattern of light and shadow upon skin. Yes, Lestrade was not likely to stay still long enough to be drawn unless fast asleep. But he'd no right to whip out his electronic sketchpad and start drawing.

He had taken unforgivable liberties, and that with a woman who had been his constant friend and benefactor. Almost worse, he had abused her hospitality.

The twenty-second century took its passwords and passcodes seriously, training its citizens up from children to remember long strings of letters, numbers, and symbols. When he had first come to this century, and had lodged with Lestrade out of necessity, she had gone through the moderns' quaint little ceremony of welcome to long-term guests. She had printed out her passcode and handed it to him with gloved hands and a neat bow. From the moment he touched it, the passcode would only appear at his touch. He had memorized it, of course, and disposed of the paper as quickly and completely as possible.

When his residence at her residence had ended, he had expected Lestrade to perform the corresponding ceremony of politely changing the passcode before his eyes. But she had demurred, explaining nonchalantly that it would be just as well if he and Watson as well as her boss had the passcode in case of emergency.

It hadn't been long afterwards that, in the midst of their then-usual recreational quarrels, Lestrade had asked him to sign the forms designating him as next-of-kin ahead of Grayson. "Ten to one, if I get hurt, you'll be somewhere close, and you can tell Watson to treat me," she'd said. "Besides, you've got nobody on your forms but me and Professor Hargreaves."

So when she had gotten the keys to 221 from the foundation which owned them, naturally, he had insisted she keep a set.

She had been in and out of Baker Street nearly every day. But aside from the time he had sheltered there while a wanted man, he had not much used his passcode to Lestrade's flat -- until he misused it.

As he had not understood how it had happened, he had not a notion why he had acted as he did when she awoke. In retrospect, he did not understand why Lestrade had shown such forbearance toward him as not to report him, or insist the drawing be destroyed. In many ways, she was a remarkably understanding woman.

Still, he understood clearly that there would be consequences. Never having antagonized Lestrade to such a degree before, he had no idea what they might be. So he kept a weather eye out, particularly when entering the WC or the shower, or heading to his bed.

That reminded him to feel annoyed at himself, which retarded sleep. In his dreams, he found himself repeatedly confronted by the lady in that same state of nature in which he had found her, alternating in mood from murderous to... welcoming. He was not sure which was the most unsettling.

So he did not sleep much.

In the silent watches of the night, reading to pass the hours, he had come to appreciate the old Persian astronomer Khayyam's comparison of women and wine. Yes, he had become accustomed to a glass's worth of exposure to Lestrade, and the way she made him merry and fluent of talk. That had not prepared him for a full bottle of such a heady vintage, or the headaches that would follow.

He had sent her a letter of apology, of course. It had begun with "No apology can be sufficient to the wrong I have done you," and gone on from there to "My professional honour has always demanded that no woman feel unsafe in my company. My unbalanced behaviour toward you, a friend and colleague, is therefore doubly inexcusable...." Finally he had ended with, "You are a person whom I have long held in the highest regard. Although I would understand if you should wish to cut all ties between us, I hope that we may work together again at some day in the future...." with an appropriately abject signature.

He had not seen or heard from her for a week now. She must be furious.

He flung himself into his armchair, dragging his syntholin with him, and began to pound away at the keys, playing not chords but discords. The electronically sampled sounds shrieked louder and louder, like a damned soul trying to force the infernal gates. The syntholin played on, and Holmes closed his eyes and threw himself into the sound and the motion of his hands touching the plastic, up and down, back and forth, screeching, screaming, shrilling, trilling down his spine and into the sky, question, desperation, frustration all in one, rising and falling and rising again. And again. And again.

"Holmes," she said.

His eyes snapped open. Lestrade was standing at his elbow, and clearly she had been there for some time. Freed from the music's spell so suddenly, he felt almost as if it had conjured her out of thin air, as Faust had called up Helen of Troy. Good thing he was in no danger of feeling perfect happiness. He felt himself pale as he rose jerkily to his feet.

Lestrade opened her mouth to say something.

"Just see who's come to visit us, Holmes!" said Watson from behind her, his tones laden with delight. "Too bad it's not a better occasion, though. Lestrade's had to change the passcode of her flat."

Confusion fled. "What was stolen? I assume you've preserved the scene...."

Color mounted into Lestrade's tan cheeks. "Nothing like that. Just a little... unauthorized access," she finished dryly. "I'm sure it won't happen again. But... well...."

"Better safe than sorry," Watson finished sententiously. "Then you can 'rest easy', as the Americans say."

He traded glances with Beth. He had thought that his own sleep- deprived appearance might count in his favor. But her dark-circled eyes denied that.

"Quite right," he said quietly. "You have a right to feel secure in your own home, and you must not let anyone take that away."

Beth nodded once, fiercely. "I won't."

"Well, let's not dwell upon such an unpleasant subject," Watson soothed. "Before you forget, Lestrade, why don't you give Holmes his copy of the passcode? Then I'll bring us all some really hot tea." He gently patted Lestrade on the shoulder with one massive metal hand.

Lestrade looked horrified. By the demands of her time's etiquette, Watson should and must stay in the room to see someone else receive a passcode. It would imply anger with Watson to order him out.

Lestrade gave him one apologetic glance. Her eyes looked huge, worried and kind. He remembered that look. It had been what he first beheld upon opening his eyes in the twenty-second century.

Then she bowed, put her hand in an inner pocket, brought something out that was closed inside her hand, and carefully handed him... nothing.

He played along -- pretended to scan the paper inside his own cupped hand, then thrust its nonexistent mass into his dressing-gown pocket.

"Thank you," he said, meaning it. He could not have borne for Watson to know his disgrace.

But it hurt.

"Well, that's that," said Watson. "I'll get tea. Would anyone like muffins?"

***

Tea was miserable. But Watson chattered happily along, filling the gaps in conversation. Holmes wondered if he'd noticed anything. Probably. The prank story and Lestrade's break-in would have to suffice. Besides, everyone knew he was moody.

Unauthorized access. Ha. Well, he supposed every woman's home was her castle, and if you believed the sainted Teresa de Jesus de Avila, every soul was a castle, too. That had been his real intrusion. He had gone where only the lady's husband would have a right to venture. Or, to use a more modern analogy, having found a hidden backdoor, he still wasn't allowed to hack himself a root administrative account. But it was a strange sort of exploit; invading someone else's system had destroyed his own firewall.

That was the whole trouble. She was inside his system now, calling up files inside his mind without even meaning to. With every word and every silence, with each glance and each averted gaze. She ownzed him, as Tennyson might say.

She wasn't even angry at him -- she seemed to have reverted to her initial view that you had to expect such things from a Sherlock Holmes. Taking the passcode from him was just a training method, to teach the old dog a new trick.

That just made it worse.

Watson chuckled. "Yes, we've been a bit slow since the heatwave lifted. But Holmes is hardly wasting his 'time off'. He's started taking drawing lessons over the Net. Haven't you, Holmes?"

Holmes nodded irritably. What a thing to bring up.

Unexpectedly, Lestrade grinned wryly at him. "How's it going, then?"

He stared down into his teacup. "It goes."

"I think you're doing quite well," Watson objected. "And when your teacher, Miss Tasso, called today, she said she wanted to enter one of your drawings into a special student exhibit at the art school. Of course I told her you'd be delighted."

"I wonder why." Holmes looked up, a bit puzzled. "I didn't think that still life was anything special."

"I'm pretty sure she didn't mention a still life. It was a figure study, she said."

An intense silence ensued -- the sort of lack of sound which outroars a lunar shuttle's takeoff.

Lestrade said, with a complete sang-froid that surprised him, "Would that be the annual New London Students and Amateurs Art Exhibition? The one that opens tomorrow?"

"I believe that was the name," Watson said, obviously calling up the datum from his memory. "Yes, it was. How did you know?"

"Oh, Mrs. Grayson exhibits her stuff there every year," said Lestrade. "So of course the Chief Inspector goes the first day, and drops a few hints that we might think of coming, too."

"That doesn't sound like anything I ought to be in," Holmes said, acting nonchalant for all he was worth. "I'm just a beginner, whereas Mrs. Grayson does some rather remarkable things with watercolors. Perhaps I'd better call my art teacher in private and find out if that is really what she meant." Holmes rose. Then he saw Lestrade rising to follow him. "Lestrade...."

"Don't worry, I'm not going anywhere," she said, contradicting the fact that she seemed to be doing just that. "But as long as we're having an interruption, I need to use the facilities. All that tea...." With the quick stride of desperation, she vanished out the sitting room door into the stairwell.

Holmes watched her go. It was a remarkably realistic performance, and good tactics as well. Avoiding the appearance of a clandestine meeting by going out beforehand. Perhaps Lestrade had been paying more attention to his methods than he'd thought.

"Far be it from me to criticize a lady, but I will never become used to this modern obsession with discussing certain functions at table," Watson harumphed.

"Never mind, old fellow," Holmes soothed him. "You're a medical man, and have heard far worse. As for me, I hear the Irregulars coming down the street, no doubt looking for their own tea. I had best vanish downstairs before they get here, or I will never be able to make this call."

Holmes made good his escape and found Lestrade waiting for him. Holmes led the way through one of the paneling doors and down two floors to a seldom-used area belowstairs. It had been used for coal in his day; the foundation had converted it into museum offices. He held the door open for Lestrade, then, despite all his resolutions about propriety, closed it behind them. The office was very well soundproofed. It would better serve propriety if noone heard Lestrade yell out the specific nature of his sins.

She folded her arms and faced him. "I assume you weren't actually stupid enough to enter that picture."

"No! Of course not."

"Then you must have done something when you submitted your assignments. Did you email them? Attach 'em to a vidcall? What?"

"I didn't have to email them. I simply copied my files to the class storage area."

"How did you do that? Wireless connection, or a sharing program?"

Holmes blinked at her. "I tell the computer to do it and it does. Why?"

Lestrade blinked back, then unexpectedly chuckled. "I thought you were way more paranoid than that, o wily investigator. Better let me take a look." She put out her hand.

Holmes stepped toward her to hand her the electronic sketchpad. Lestrade took a half step back -- not quite a flinch. Holmes stepped back himself. They both looked at each other a little warily for a moment, but said nothing. Then Lestrade looked down and flipped on the sketchpad.

She hmmed, then beckoned him. "This your class file directory?"

He approached her gingerly and looked over her shoulder. "Yes."

"Then that's the problem. It's a shared file area, and you connected it right onto the normal working directory where you store art files. These your assignments?"

"Yes."

"Judging by the dates, you work fast."

"We haven't had any cases this week. I must do something to keep my mind from pulling itself to pieces."

"Yeah? Well, if you hadn't been finishing so fast, you'd've seen that the teacher has the sharing on so she can look over all your classmates' work while it's in progress. Make helpful comments, that kind of thing, so people can correct themselves. So she looked through everything you stored in your working directory."

"Everything?"

"The whole schmole. You can see by these access records. Just look."

Holmes groaned and raised his hands to his head. "Is there no privacy in this century?"

"Not if you put the files right under the teacher's nose." Lestrade's smirk faded. "Hey, don't beat yourself up about it. You've never taken a live class like this before. How were you supposed to know?"

"I should have known. I would have known, if I'd just bothered to ask Watson or Tennyson." He looked grim. "I suppose that making the picture of you a hidden file wouldn't have done any good."

Lestrade gave him a look. "No. Not if she had her computer set to reveal hidden files, like any reasonably paranoid person."

"Ah."

"And I wouldn't keep anything high security on any piece of hardware you're going to share files on. There's a lot of ways to go strolling through somebody else's house, once the door is open."

It was an extremely unfortunate remark, as they both realized as soon as it was said. Color dotted Holmes' pale cheeks and shaded in Lestrade's darker ones.

"You'd better call that teacher of yours and see what she can do about getting the picture pulled from that show," she said gruffly. "And I'll stay out of eyeshot, if you don't mind."

"That will take a moment. I'll need to go back upstairs and get into character."

Lestrade gave him a skeptical look. "You went undercover to take an art class?"

"Of course."

"But why?"

"Why not?"

She groaned, shook her head, and muttered, "Why do I ask?"

Why? he asked himself as he headed back upstairs, taking the secret stair to his bedroom. If you had to ask such a thing, he had always reckoned, it meant you would never understand. But this time, he was uneasily aware that he didn't entirely understand it himself. He had done the thing with as little pondering as possible.

He stepped quietly into his bedroom, closed the door soundlessly behind him, and began to rummage through his costume wardrobe.

Part of it had to do with his normal love of disguises and acting, of course. A role gave him freedom to play and explore. He had particularly enjoyed devising Sigg Vincent. Sigg wore flashy fashionable clothes, or moody clothes, or both at once. He was overserious and convinced both that Art would save the world and that no one understood the greatness of his genius. Made a nice change from playing homeless old vagabonds.

But that the role also had something to do with separation from his own actions, he well knew. It wasn't his shame about them, even. It was simply that he didn't comprehend his own sketches. They came straight from his eye to his hand, and he could not yet control them as he could his music. Any viewer might understand them better than he, and see things he did not wish anyone to know. It made him feel quite naked.

He added a subtle touch of makeup to make his eyes look smaller, altered his stance, and furrowed his brow to produce that overserious expression. Thinking of the position in which Lestrade was placed, that last was easy now.

As it had happened, it was just as well he'd gone undercover. If Sigg Vincent painted a nude, she might be any woman in New London, or a figment of his overheated imagination. A nude by Sherlock Holmes would raise questions... and eyebrows.

He slipped back down the secret stair and joined Lestrade again. She was bent over his sketchpad, but she looked up when he came in. "I checked the logs against...well, a lot of other stuff. I'm reasonably sure nobody else from your class accessed the file." She smiled. "By the way, your art teacher _is_ paranoid -- got some serious security software up. Not that it'd stop anybody with real skills, but the Tennysons of this world probably aren't taking drawing classes."

He raised an eyebrow. He found it easy to picture Beth Lestrade as a disaffected teenager, but he still found it difficult to see her as a surfcracker, riding the Web and breaking into unguarded systems. Rattling doorknobs, yes. Walking in and making herself at home, no. But nothing brewed juvenile computer crime like mixing deep anger and intellectual arrogance with the callow daring which believes it will never get caught. Beth never spoke much about that part of her life, except to call it 'pulling boneheaded stunts'.

Boneheaded stunts. Yes, he'd pulled plenty of them in his day, and he was apparently not beyond them even now. Boldness and arrogance....

"Best I call my teacher and beg for mercy before it gets too late," he said. "Do you wish to stand by and observe?"

She shrugged, but she moved out of camera range and stayed. Of course. He smiled to himself. One might fault his knowledge of the current day or even his outmoded detection techniques, but as an actor, his powers were unfailing. And that wasn't arrogance at all.

He called his teacher and put on an embarrassed scowl. A bit tricky -- Sigg wouldn't want to look embarrassed, but in his inexperience, he would betray himself.

"Hello, Sigg. I wondered when you'd call back. Did you get my message about your entry in the show?"

"Er, yeah, Miss Tasso. But when you said figure study, did you mean that... er... nude in my portfolio?" Sigg's hands twisted nervously.

"Oh, yes. That was a wonderful piece. I had no idea you'd been working with models already."

"But I haven't!" Sigg licked his lips. "I mean... I know this girl, see...."

Out of camera range, Lestrade began to laugh silently.

"Oh, dear. She hasn't forbidden you to show it, I hope?"

"Of course she has! I can't show something like that! Not in public."

"The human body is a beautiful thing. You drew her very respectfully, and it's an amazingly mature work. I'm sure it can win a prize, and it's going to be hung in a very prominent place in the show."

The smile felt off Lestrade's face, and she mouthed something very unladylike but creative.

"I could talk to her," Miss Tasso continued, "and let her know what a big help this could be to you. I'm sure I could persuade her."

Sigg panicked. "No! I mean, her parents are probably coming to the show, so I wouldn't want any misunderstandings."

"I suppose not," said Miss Tasso regretfully. "But surely she could make them understand. This is a matter of art. When you are giving the world your vision, petty conventions and moralities fade into insignificance."

Lestrade just rolled her eyes, but Holmes suddenly found himself feeling angry with his teacher. It sounded like the sort of thing Moriarty might say. Or the nonsense he'd babbled to Lestrade that day.

"She's my painting's subject, not an object. And if I'd painted her into a masterpiece like the Mona Lisa, I'd still owe her the respect of listening to what she wants. Look, maybe I can't keep her out of trouble, but I'm not going to get her into it."

"But surely...."

"Anyway, she owns the original," Holmes said curtly, fighting to get back into character. "Zed, Miss Tasso! If you put it up, she'll sue! So please, withdraw it from the show, even though it's so late."

Miss Tasso sighed, too. "Of course, Sigg. I'll take care of that right away. But tell your friend she really should think about it."

Lestrade mouthed something about 'when Hell freezes over'.

"Er... I will. Thanks, Miss Tasso."

Holmes ended the call. He had seldom been so glad to be done with anything.

Lestrade chuckled. "That is one art-crazy teacher you've got."

And what do you call me? he wondered. But he nodded. "I still owe you some sort of reparations."

"For not understanding filesharing? Holmes, I'm not...."

"For the original incident," he said firmly. "I would like to offer you a reparations plan, in lieu of whatever recondite revenge you are planning."

Lestrade looked dubious. "What kind of plan?"

"For one pre-scheduled hour of your choice, I answer any question you ask me. Anything you want to know, from my childhood to the non-confidential details of my current practice. I will, so to speak, lay myself bare."

She stared at him, blinked, and stared some more. "Wow."

"Do you accept, then?"

She stared at him some more, then shook her head with sudden violence. "Not just no, but zed no! You want to tell me something, just tell me. I'm not going to violate your privacy and extort answers from you in some giant game of Truth or Dare."

"I'm the one who violated your privacy. It's a fair trade."

She gave him a disgusted look. "Two wrongs don't make a right."

"Then what am I supposed to do to make amends?" He could not believe the woman was refusing an invitation to be a nosy parker. What a time for her to develop such unfeminine and unsleuthlike scruples. In a state of total frustration, he muttered, "Very well, then. I shall let you see me naked."

Lestrade folded her arms and gave him an look. "Yeah, right. Holmes, I helped wash your corpse. You've got nothing I haven't seen before."

Holmes suddenly discovered whole new realms of frustration. It wasn't fair. When it came to birth and death, every woman on earth suddenly thought she'd turned into a sort of archetypal embodiment of the history of the human race. Lestrade's eyes looked like those of some cold goddess, infinitely ancient and unimpressed.

Then Lestrade grinned. "But you probably look a little healthier now."

"Only probably?"

"Hey, enough late nights on the Internet'll make anyone into a cadaver."

"So you know that from personal experience?"

"Amazing deduction." She rolled her eyes. "My dear Holmes, however do you do it?"

He harumphed. "If I were so amazing, I would have deduced your elaborate plan of revenge by now."

She shook her head. "But there isn't one. I might try to get you back with a prank for something minor, but not something big like this."

Holmes stared at her. "Do you mean that I've been watching my back all this time for nothing?"

She shrugged, then quirked an eyebrow. "Sounds like you got yourself back."

Holmes found himself laughing, and Lestrade joined him. The sound fell on his ear like the first drop of rain on long-dry soil. Their eyes met without shying away, and they laughed harder.

Holmes sobered first. "We'd best get back. Watson will be wondering about us."

She nodded, straightened her grin to something more appropriate, and got up. She didn't move away as he walked toward her, and her closeness didn't make him feel uncomfortable. Somehow, they'd found a way back to normal. He felt more relieved about that than about saving her from the wrath of Greyson.

She opened her mouth, then paused, as if sorting the words on the tip of her tongue.

"It's only for a month," she said abruptly. "Call it probation. Anyone can make a mistake. After that, you can have the code for emergencies again."

He nodded. "Thank you."

"This isn't about reparations or revenge. It's about giving a wound some time to heal. Can you understand that?"

"I can."

"And you don't have to keep apologizing. Just forget it. I know you're an honorable guy, and you don't usually make the same mistake twice."

"I try."

"Just remember," she added with sudden sternness, "the only guy who gets to see me with my clothes off is my doctor or my husband. Capish?" She whirled away and back up the stairs.

Holmes smiled as he watched her go, but he didn't say any of the things which came to mind. Lestrade had taken him back into her good graces. He would have to behave himself if he wanted to stay there.

Which he did. He slept better that way.

What was more important, so did she.

THE END


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