John loved tea. Just the thought of it made him feel warm inside. Sometimes it even felt as though tea were a part of him. But then, he was a teapot.
No. He had to face it. He was an ex-teapot. It was six months since the last time he'd been used to make tea. Six months since he'd ended up in this charity shop. He'd started off in the window, then been moved back to the table, then onto a low shelf, then a top shelf and now he was residing on what could only be called the 'junk shelf': sharing space with a haggard baby doll, some statement jewellery and a couple of battered paperbacks. He couldn't help but feel bitter. Yes, he had been through the wars but he knew he was still capable of providing good service. Of fulfilling the role for which he had been created.
It was nearly closing time. The shop had been empty but one last customer had slipped in. She had a few shopping bags with her: her last call before home, John guessed. He hadn't seen her before but the male volunteer on the till greeted her by name. Judging by his smile she was a customer likely to buy something, not someone simply coming in to pass the time and annoy him and his colleague as they were trying to close up.
John vaguely studied the customer as she moved round the shop, working her way through the donated stock. She was trim, attractive, careful of her appearance and had such an air of vivacity that it seemed incorrect and downright ill-mannered to call her elderly. She eventually reached John's shelf and lifted him off for a closer look. This wasn't a novelty. He was picked up and replaced a few times a day. He appreciated the careful way she held him though as she examined him. Treated him as valuable, as though it were actually important for him to still be in one piece when she put him back on the shelf. Most browsers were not so considerate. He relaxed, enjoying being in contact with a tea-maker again, and began to drift away. He nearly jumped out of her hands when she exclaimed, "A Watson!" and bore him in triumph to the till.
The price marked on him was a fiver but to both John's and the volunteer's delight - "Mrs Hudson, really, that's most..!" - the customer insisted on paying £50 for him. By the time John regained control of his emotions, he and his new owner were outside and moving away from the shop.
John beamed, and continued to beam all the way to his new home.
His new address turned out to be 221 Baker Street: a large, terraced Georgian house. It was surprising really it had escaped being turned into flats. Mrs Hudson was obviously house-proud; the place was neat and well cared for. John found it immediately warm and welcoming.
Mrs Hudson placed him gently on the kitchen table, took off her coat and began to put her shopping away. Every so often she would turn back to admire her new teapot. It had been a while since John had seen someone look at him like that. He in his turn stood there smiling at everything and everyone. To be part of a kitchen again… He almost couldn't believe it. He wasn't alone any more.
Mrs Hudson put the last packet in its correct place and turned to John.
"Come on then," she said. "Let's get you settled in."
She opened a cupboard above the counter and took John in her hands. "It's a big cupboard so I'm sure you won't mind sharing."
She gingerly raised John up to set him inside. He stared upwards, eager to see his new quarters. He certainly didn't mind sharing with a few cups and saucers. But as he came level with the cupboard, instead of the expected inhabitants, he found himself staring at the oddest teapot he'd ever seen. High, thin. Very pale. The pot stared back at him with amused interest.
"Welcome to 221B," he said. "The name's Sherlock."
"I'm John," said John.
Mrs Hudson had placed him on 221B's lower shelf next to his new companion and then retreated. Luckily she had left the cupboard door open a fraction and there was enough light for John to be able to examine his surroundings. The cupboard was certainly large. There was an upper shelf as well if necessary. Plenty of room for two teapots. He turned his full attention to his fellow tenant. Sherlock was impressively tall and slender. John felt rather short and stout next to him. Which was ridiculous: he was a perfectly normal size and shape for a teapot. And he was a rather attractive sky blue. He'd had his admirers. But Sherlock was something out of the ordinary: he was the fairest milky white and he had the silkiest, most delicate glaze. His handle was almost triangular, nothing like John's smooth curve. Even his lid-handle was a little curlier and ornate than it strictly speaking needed to be. John considered the taller vessel. He suspected Sherlock might actually be a coffeepot but that was none of his business. Teapot, coffeepot: it was all fine.
"You're a Watson," said Sherlock thoughtfully.
He gave John an appraising look. "So was it the Society for Ailing Animals or A Big Heart for Humanity?" he asked.
"Ailing animals," said John taken aback. "How did you know it was a..?"
He couldn't quite bring himself to utter the phrase 'charity shop'. Although the store was rapidly fading into the past the thought of it was still painful. Sherlock ignored him.
"What else..? You were made in Northumberland but you've been living in London. Your previous owner died six months ago and you were inherited by a blood relative but not a close one – maybe a niece or a nephew."
He considered the pot before him again. "And you're from one of the 'Doctor' ranges, probably 'Country Doctor'.
John stared at him. "How did you know all that? Has someone told you about me?"
He knew it was impossible as soon as he'd said it. Sherlock looked a little irritated. "I observed it," he said. John looked uncertain and Sherlock sighed.
"It's perfectly straightforward," he said. "Mrs Hudson buys her pottery through the internet, at auctions, through adverts in the paper and at charity shops. You didn't arrive in the post so she didn't use the internet to find you. This is her normal shopping day and she left in her second best coat with her shopping bag. An auction or even following up a newspaper advert seems unlikely. And there is a considerable amount of dust gathered in your spout which makes a private seller even more unlikely. They would have made sure you were clean. A charity shop then.
"There are five charity shops in the vicinity of the local supermarket: three of them Mrs Hudson visits at least weekly. But as I said, there is a significant build-up of fluff in your spout – you've been on the shelf for a while. If you'd been on show at one of her regular shops, Mrs Hudson would have spotted you. You must therefore have been at one of the two she uses less often because they rarely have anything of interest. Either the ailing animals or saving humanity."
John tried to say something but apparently Sherlock wasn't finished.
"You've got several chips on your body but the vast majority are tiny – it's the usual minor damage when a teapot has been used regularly over many years. The largest chip is also the most recent – only six months old by my estimate. It's been caused by rough handling from someone who didn't particularly value you. So you've changed hands six months ago. But it's unlikely you've gone straight from your careful owner to the shop. If someone didn't want you any more they would've sold you, not given you to a charity shop. Even in your current condition you're worth a fair amount of money."
"Thank you," said John drily.
"It's likely then your owner has died," continued Sherlock obliviously, "and you've been inherited by someone who doesn't know your worth, someone your owner hadn't been in regular contact with. A blood relative is the most likely beneficiary but not a close one, so a niece or nephew is probable. They considered you worthless and treated you roughly causing the chip. It could have happened in the shop but I think they would have been more careful as you were technically an asset.
"The relative could have just thrown you away but out of respect and sentiment passed you on to the shop instead. They wouldn't have gone out of their way to take you to a shop – they would have taken you from your home to the nearest. So you lived nearby. But the quality of your glaze and your colouring suggests that you originated from the Northumberland factory.
"The recent, large chip on your base has obscured a word but the partial letter remaining is probably a 'Y', and this is followed by the word 'DOCTOR'. So it isn't a huge jump to deduce you're from the 'Country Doctor' range."
Sherlock paused and glanced at John.
"That's amazing," said John.
Sherlock seemed taken aback. He looked away and then back at John. "That isn't what people usually say," he said finally.
"What do people normally say then?" asked John.
Sherlock grinned. "Well, it usually involves the word 'tosspot'."
"So," Sherlock continued, "did I get anything wrong?"
"Well," said John, "I was made at the Watson factory in Northumberland but I was sold in a London department store and I stayed in London. My owner Mrs Turner died six months ago and her niece inherited her estate. I was sent to the charity shop where Mrs Hudson found me today. And, yes, I'm a 'Doctor'."
Sherlock looked very pleased with himself.
"And, yes," said John, "the letter before 'DOCTOR' is a 'Y'.
Sherlock carried on looking pleased with himself.
"But," said John, "the word that's missing is 'ARMY', not 'COUNTRY'."
"Oh," said Sherlock. He swung away from the other pot. "There's always something."
He quickly brightened though and turned back. "The 'Army Doctor' was a severely limited run. You're something exceptional."
"I like to think so," grinned John.
The cupboard door suddenly swung right open. John took a moment to adjust to the brightness and then he saw Mrs Hudson reaching up for Sherlock, who was practically translucent against the electric light. A matching light went on in John's memory.
"You're a Holmes!" he cried as Sherlock was moved away from him and deposited gracefully on the table. John himself was then carefully transported through the air and placed next to the other pot. A Holmes. John had never seen one up close before. Watsons were found on shop shelves - the shelves of hideously expensive and exclusive shops admittedly - but they were available to be handled by potential purchasers. The Holmes collection was always kept in cabinets, locked behind glass doors. The Prime Minister and the Royal family used Holmes teapots. Mrs Hudson was comfortably off but it seemed unlikely she'd have that kind of money to spend, even if the Holmes wasn't brand new. And Sherlock seemed sparklingly new.
Sherlock appeared to have followed his train of thought. "I've been tested," he said. "I'm a high-quality second." The teapot seemed neither proud of nor bothered by his status. There was something admirable about that, thought John. Surprisingly, he found himself unconcerned by Sherlock's announcement.
John smiled at the other teapot. What a pair they were: the perfect second and the damaged perfect.
Mrs Hudson was apparently a woman of mild eccentricities. She seemed to find nothing odd in using Sherlock and John simultaneously, so after John had had a rinse in boiling water he found himself back on the table next to Sherlock, quietly brewing. John couldn't stop grinning. He savoured the sensation of his first batch of tea in months.
Sherlock appeared to be concentrating on the tea as well and was disinclined to talk, so John took the opportunity to look around the kitchen. Everywhere there were beautiful pieces of china. Each cup, mug, plate and bowl appeared to have a different pattern and come from a different manufacturer but there was an overarching taste which meant that all the pieces formed one coherent collection.
John began to become acquainted with his new kitchen-mates. He'd been briefly introduced to the kettle, of course, and the table appeared to be a sturdy, reliable chap. There was also a cruet set close beside John. The salt cellar was a little stand-offish and the mustard didn't seem keen to chat but the pepper pot was cheerful and friendly. She gave him a wide smile.
"It's so lovely to have a new addition to the place," she said. "And Sherlock needed someone to share that big cupboard with."
She gave him a little knowing look. "You two are so adorable together."
John was thrown. "What? Oh, no… no… we're not a couple," he said.
Mrs Hudson chose this moment to came over and dress them both in matching woolly tea cosies. The salt cellar snickered.
The cosies weren't absolutely matching, of course. Sherlock's covering was much longer and also black. It made his pale, slender frame appear even more dashing. John's cosy was a pleasant, restrained, creamy light brown: almost a perfect fit, unexpectedly. John was snug and comfortable, but standing next to his companion he couldn't help feeling a little plain.
He realised that the pepper pot was gazing at them as if they were the most endearing sight she'd ever seen. Sherlock caught John's eye and John found himself beginning to grin. Sherlock grinned back and soon the two of them had dissolved into helpless laughter.
"So, what range are you from?" asked John, after he had regained control of himself.
He thought back to Sherlock's attention to detail. "'The Musician'?" Sherlock made a non-committal sound.
"Getting warmer," said Sherlock.
Something suddenly clicked in John's mind. The observations, the deductions…
"You're a 'Detective'," he said.
"'Consulting Detective'," corrected Sherlock. "The only one."
"Oh," said John, "so that means other detectives…"
"Consult me, yes. Well done," said Sherlock. Not entirely unkindly.
John glanced involuntarily around the kitchen.
"Lot of call for your services?" he asked.
Sherlock studied John's expression, possibly searching for sarcasm. "Things are a little slow," he conceded.
He indicated the kettle, who was deep in conversation with the toaster. "I occasionally help Lestrade with missing person cases. Things are forever falling down the back of the drawer and behind the fridge."
At the sound of his name the kettle had turned to look at them. He gave John a look of amused sympathy and returned to his discussion.
"Doesn't really seem as though that would stretch your talents," said John cautiously.
Sherlock abruptly grinned. "No," he said, "but occasionally Mrs Hudson allows me to be borrowed. She isn't one of these boring collectors who believe we should all be imprisoned behind glass in a perpetual retirement. She's not our keeper. We were meant to work and she lets us do so. Soon we'll go forth into the outside world and find a real case. There are lots of people who need our help. I'll show you exactly how a Holmes solves crime."
John couldn't help smiling at his cupboard-mate's enthusiasm. "But how can you be certain you'll find a case?" he said. "Perhaps we'll just attend a nice, quiet tea party."
"Oh no," said Sherlock, his grin getting wider. "Crime always seems to know where to find me."
John had been living at Baker Street for eleven days. Sherlock was bored.
"I'm bored!" said Sherlock.
"Yes," said John. "You've mentioned it once or twice." Mrs Hudson really needed to switch Sherlock to decaffeinated.
Over the past few days John had been enjoying rediscovering the pleasures of domesticity. Making tea again; being useful again. But Sherlock's restlessness and craving for novelty were beginning to affect him. He started to wonder what working on a case would be like.
At the moment he and Sherlock weren't even making tea. They were just standing on the kitchen table. Sherlock was being vigorously bored while John was attempting to read the paper that Mrs Hudson had left out. It was somewhat difficult when his companion was so determined to be distracting. John read out some of the stories to try and gain Sherlock's interest.
"Insipid mundanities!" declared Sherlock.
John was losing patience. "Look…" he began but was interrupted by Mrs Hudson coming back and inexplicably starting to crumple up the newspaper's pages. He was further surprised by Sherlock giving a cry of excitement.
John was about to ask what was going on when he was enveloped in bubble wrap, placed in a box and the newspaper was tucked around him.
"We're on our way," said Sherlock gleefully. "There's a case out there just waiting for us."
John's first time out in the field was proving to be something of an anti-climax. They'd been dressed in elegant quilted black cosies, courtesy of the catering company, and had then been placed on one end of a trestle table at the back of the hall, under a splendid and rather flamboyant floral display. After that things had become a great deal less interesting. John's enthusiasm was rapidly going off the boil.
He stood and watched the assembled throng. The event they were attending was a Sunday afternoon celebration for local community volunteers. Everyone was good natured, well-behaved and intent on having a good time. Unfortunately. Beside him Sherlock was eagerly studying the crowd but he too was looking less and less optimistic. "Something will turn up," he said. John wasn't reassured.
A very pretty waitress came over. Ignoring Sherlock, she picked up John, poured out a cup of tea and left again with the cup, a jug of milk and a couple of sachets of sugar. John was smiling quite a bit as he watched her go.
Sherlock gave him an arch look. "Oh, shut up," said John.
The waitress handed the tea to a middle-aged woman who accepted it with thanks and a smile. Everyone was being so nice.
"Boring," said Sherlock, once again apparently reading John's mind.
John's attention wandered around the hall. Twenty-five tables, he estimated. Four, no, five waiting staff to cover them. Three women, two men. The guests were predominantly over 50 but there was a whole age range there. John gazed absently at an elderly man sitting with his wife and grandchildren. Everyone seemed entirely respectable. This wasn't the place to be looking for crime.
The elderly man shared a joke with his wife before cheerfully taking a sip from his cup of tea. With perfect comedy timing he spat it back out over his unfortunate and astonished spouse.
"Salt!" he exclaimed. "Salt! In the tea!"
Sherlock's attention snapped towards the drama. Almost immediately there was another splutter and a cry of "In mine too!" There was another complaint, and another. Sherlock and John stared at each other. John wore an expression of consternation; Sherlock bore an expression of pure delight.
"The game is on," he beamed.
"What the hell's going on?" said John. "Who would do something like this?"
He thought about having salt in his own tea and shuddered. The idea was monstrous. John glanced at Sherlock. His gaze was darting about, gathering information. After a while he became very calm and still.
"Sherlock..?" asked John.
Sherlock glared at him. "I'm thinking," he said and returned to his deductions.
John watched him quietly, starting to feel a little worried. Sherlock was looking a bit flushed.
"Are you all right?" asked John. "How many teabags do you have in your system at the moment?"
"Three," said Sherlock. "It's a three teabag problem. Now please be quiet."
John looked away from his colleague and paid attention to the room again. The place was in uproar. His heart went out to the victims. It was a crime so horrible in its conception.
"Salt in the tea…" murmured Sherlock. "What must that feel like..?"
His tone was yearning, as though he himself was willing to undergo the ordeal just to collect the data. John was shocked. Sherlock had told him he was a second but he was unprepared for actually seeing the evidence of that. John was having difficulty hiding his turmoil but luckily Sherlock wasn't paying attention to him.
"There's a pattern," said Sherlock abruptly. "Have you noticed? Almost all the victims are sitting at tables in the top right corner of the room."
"Could just be chance," offered John, desperately trying to pull himself together.
"Unlikely," said Sherlock. He turned and gazed intently at his companion, his frustration unmistakeable. "The solution - I'm almost there …"
He was interrupted. At the table nearest to them a woman gagged on her tea. Her arm shot out violently, the resulting gust of air causing her empty sachet to fly upwards and gently float down onto the trestle table, next to Sherlock. The detective stared at it. He grinned.
"Ah, I have all the necessary information now. The victims do it to themselves."
Before an astonished John could query this, a young woman in a suit and one of the waiters came over towards them. Presumably the catering manager and the head waiter, thought John. They both looked pretty flustered.
"There must have been a mix-up with the packaging at the factory," said the man.
He reached for one of the sachets, opened it and tasted it. "This one's sugar. It must only be certain packets."
"We already know that," snapped the woman. "Not everyone's been affected."
She made a visible effort to calm down. "Look, it's not a catastrophe. We'll just have to ask the guests to taste the contents of their sachets before they add them to their drinks." Her colleague agreed and they moved away again.
John immediately turned to Sherlock and began interrogating him. "What do you mean: they do it to themselves?"
Sherlock was delighting in being enigmatic. "Well, when I say they do it to themselves, there is someone encouraging them to take that course of action."
"Who?" demanded John. "Do you know who's behind it?"
"Of course," said Sherlock, genuinely bewildered that John hadn't realised that.
There was a pause.
"Who?!" yelled John.
Sherlock sighed. "At a crowded, busy gathering," he said, "who goes completely unnoticed?"
John stared at him. "Think, John!" said Sherlock impatiently. "If they're doing their job properly, they're just treated as part of the background."
John suddenly understood. "The waiters," he whispered.
"Yes!" said Sherlock. "Or rather a waiter. That's why the victims are clumped together – they're all in his allocated section." Sherlock was looking over towards that section now, distracted.
"He gives each of the guests two sachets. One contains sugar, the other salt. Both are clearly marked with regard to their contents but in the context of a hot drink everyone just assumes both packets contain sugar. Just add in the fact that the salt sachet has the bolder, brighter and more attractive pattern and every victim reaches for the wrong flavouring. It's a simple psychological ploy."
"But why do it?" asked John puzzled. "Why give the guests the two options?"
Sherlock shrugged his handle. "Perhaps he just wanted to demonstrate how brilliant he is." He was still looking away from John, out towards the floor.
"I think we might be about to discover a little more about him."
John followed the direction of Sherlock's gaze. A waiter was coming towards them. A nondescript man with a pleasant but instantly forgettable face. John had seen him – counted him – but he hadn't truly noticed him. As the man drew nearer his face grew less pleasant. John saw something in his expression that he found difficult to categorise. Envy? Disgust? Hate..?
Sherlock was talking again. John listened as he watched the man inexorably approaching. He felt absolutely calm.
"He overheard the conversation between the manager and the head waiter," said Sherlock. "He knows the game is almost up."
The waiter stopped close beside them and dumped a few sachets on the table. John saw the label immediately. Salt. The man turned his attention to Sherlock. He lifted the teapot's lid and put it on the table.
"Clever," said Sherlock as John looked at him with growing horror. "The potential victims won't be adding the salt themselves any more, so it's necessary to put the salt straight into the teapot…"
The man was ripping a sachet open now. John watched, aghast. The waiter was going to add the contaminant and Sherlock seemed disinclined to do anything about it. Could he really be so bored and so curious as to actually want to experience what it felt like to have salt in your tea? The waiter was squeezing and shaking the sachet in his hand, loosening the crystals ready for the attack. John couldn't bear it any longer.
Working on instinct he began to rock from side to side. The momentum grew and grew, until he abruptly toppled over and fell forcefully against Sherlock's assailant. John's lid was thrown clear and he felt the scalding tea leave him. It was with great satisfaction that he heard the liquid spatter heavily over the waiter's arm.
The man's screams brought people running. Someone fetched a jug of cold water and poured it over the stricken man's burns. Someone else righted John. The manager hurried over to take charge.
"Are you OK?" asked Sherlock anxiously.
"Yes," said John and he was. He felt wonderful.
"Good shot," grinned Sherlock. "Though I wouldn't have let him put the salt in my tea, naturally."
"Right," scoffed John. Now Sherlock was safe he was enjoying himself.
He looked around. The disturbance was beginning to die down. People were losing interest in the waiter and moving away again. Only the manager was still with him. Her attention had been directed at his injury but now she finally glanced down at the sachets lying on the table. She looked back up at the waiter shocked. The connection had been made.
"You…" She seemed unable to say anything further but in his pain and anger the guilty man was disinclined to argue about his culpability. He lost control, throwing out his uninjured arm.
"The teapot wanted me to do it! He offered to pay me!"
There was a sudden shocked silence. Everyone turned to look at him. And then, as one, they turned to look at where he was pointing, John and Sherlock too.
At the other end of the table, in the shadow of the far floral arrangement, it was just possible to make out a small, compact teapot. Spots of light gleamed on its smooth glaze, illuminating the pot's deep, sensual, chocolatey brown and its elegant, sophisticated lines. John thought it looked a bit cracked.
"A Moriarty," whispered Sherlock, more to himself than to John.
John glanced at him startled and then turned his attention back to the pot. Could he be right? A Moriarty was even rarer than a Holmes. John had only half-believed before that they truly existed. They were stylish, contemporary. A pot for those more concerned with "good taste" than the taste of good tea. John felt chilled. He wished he still had his tea to warm him.
The teapot spoke.
"What did you think of our game, Sherlock?" it asked in sugary tones.
John watched his colleague's reaction. "Something new…" Sherlock whispered.
He couldn't take his eyes off this unveiled opponent and John became uneasy. Moments ago Sherlock had been willing to take salt, simply out of curiosity. He was fascinated by danger. And this pot radiated danger like heat.
John desperately wanted to call his friend back to him. "Sherlock..?"
Suddenly the spell was broken. The waiter lunged forward - whether to protect or attack the teapot it was difficult to say. Chaos broke out again as guests and staff attempted to restrain the desperate man. A pair of hands lifted the Moriarty up and away, out of the sight of the detective and his companion.
John looked across at Sherlock and this time Sherlock steadily returned his gaze. In the midst of the maelstrom, the Consulting Detective and the Army Doctor stood firm together.
They watched with detachment as police officers entered the hall. The case had been solved and now order was going to be restored. Deep inside though they both knew this wasn't the end.
Something very dark was brewing.