Liz Strider was not an immaculate student by any means, but she was highly respected by student and teacher alike. She'd been attending London's top university for some months now, and she was only recently starting to get used to the place. Her dorm just off campus was cosy but it wasn't home, and the university wasn't as friendly as college, or as sweet and simple as high school. It was the sheer scale of the place that got to her.
But she had friends, definitely, and she got along fairly well with most of the teachers. So that was all right then. Through all intents and purposes, she was coping. On the surface, she was a studious, cheerful, popular young woman, destined to do very well in whatever field of work she chose.
Inwardly, she was craving something more. She couldn't place it, what was wrong, what was missing. Just a niggling, unnameable something.
The bell rang, signalling her next lecture, and Liz hurriedly shrugged off the feeling. She needed to focus, especially today. Today was Psychology, her favourite subject. She jammed a bookmark into The Reckoning and scampered off to lesson, bag thumping against her side.
She arrived only just in time, and narrowly escaped a sour look from Mr Howard, who lectured them for Psychology. Most of the seats had already been taken, but Liz quickly found a place in the second row, anxious to be near the front so she could hear and see everything. Beside her, several students were chattering excitedly together about something, and making petty comments about somebody or other that she was too uninterested to listen to. She retrieved her notebook and quickly scribbled down the title on the whiteboard.
'Today,' Mr Howard announced, with a subtle, teacherly kind of glee, 'we are going to discuss the criminal justice system. Why do people commit crimes? Why do we hear far more of male criminals than female? Do prisons work? These are all questions we are going to ask today.'
A few people groaned, already bored, but most people, including Liz, were actually very interested in this sort of thing, and paid close attention. About halfway through it turned into a spectacular debate, half the room (mostly the girls) putting forward ideas for more "equal" prison landscapes and rules, and the other half arguing for "tougher" prisons. Liz didn't know where she stood in this respect. She always seemed to be in agreement with whoever happened to be speaking at the time. There really were no right answers. It was very frustrating, but very enlightening, too.
Then Mr Howard announced that they should now put themselves into small groups and discuss the fors and againsts of keeping criminals of a more "serious" nature - serial killers and such - separate from petty thieves and those who regularly got into drunken fights. At that point, Liz withdrew. She'd never liked group activities of any sort. She always managed to get pushed out of whatever was going on. She preferred to work alone. Around her, her classmates swapped seats and leaned across their chairs to work in their friendship groups. Liz stayed where she was, huddled over her notebook and going over everything in her mind. She simply couldn't decide on a yes or no answer. Both had their disadvantages.
Seems only fair to give them cellmates, so they don't go stir-crazy... but then most people just re-offend when they're released anyway. So you ought to keep them separate, to stop them swapping tips and getting aggressive with each other. Argh, no wonder the justice system's so inadequate, there's no way to make it okay for everyone!
'Elizabeth, whose group are you in?' Mr Howard asked, in a friendly enough manner, but Liz felt offended by the question. Plus, she hated people using her full name, but all teachers insisted on it.
'Er, no-one's, sir. I'm working by myself. It's okay, I don't mind.'
'Well I can't have two students working on their own. Why don't you two join up, go through it together?'
He was referring to the boy in the row just in front of her, who was sat alone and hadn't spoken so much as a syllable during the whole lecture. Liz had noticed, before, that nobody had sat any less than three seats away from him at any point, and that they all seemed to instinctively ignore him, as though he wasn't there. In fact, if Mr Howard hadn't pointed him out, she might not have noticed him at all, or thought him to be a ghost. He was effectively invisible, and it seemed to be a strain even on Mr Howard to pay some form to attention to him.
Liz felt an uneasiness in her stomach; partly to do with her fear of groupwork, and partly to do with the silent, broody boy in the front row. She swallowed, and played Good Girl. 'Yes, okay, sir.'
'Good. Now why don't you move down to sit nearer to each other, eh?'
When the boy didn't react, or even make a move to show that he'd heard the request, Liz hesitantly picked up her things and shuffled a little further down the row until she was sitting behind him. After that, it seemed that she was utterly alone but for him - everybody else had gathered elsewhere, carelessly but definitely avoiding him.
Liz stared at the back of his head, curious and nervous in equal measure. She'd never seen hair quite so dark or quite so curly before. It gathered on the boy's head in a permanant storm cloud - like in cartoons when a character is particularly miserable. The coat he wore was black as night; the collar turned up so that it was impossible to tell where the neck ended and he began. It felt very, very creepy.
She licked her dry lips, and tapped his shoulder gently. 'Um... hey. I'm supposed to be working with you, like sir said?' Her tone made it sound like an enquiry. 'So, um... what do you think?'
The only reply was a soft sigh and a slight inclination of one shoulder; not a shrug, not a shake or a nod of the head.
Someone across the way - Sally, probably - sniggered. 'Poor Lizzie's been put with the freak, look. Sir's overestimated her charisma, I think.'
'She'll get nothing out of him,' Danni added, with a bit more sympathy. 'Lord knows I've tried, but he's, like, not at all as nice as he looks.'
This merely succeeded in making Liz more angry, more determined to get some sort of response from this guy. She poked him again, harder. 'Come on, we're supposed to be discussing this. Discussing means talking, so tell me what you're thinking about this whole thing.'
'Indifferent.' There was no trace of irritation in the low, velvet voice, just a bland kind of emptiness. It was the sort of voice you couldn't help but listen to. He sounded incredibly bored by the whole thing. 'What happens inside the prisons doesn't make any impact on the rest of us, so why should we care? All that is clear is that it doesn't work, but there is no way to make it work effectively. End of story.'
It was the most Liz had heard him say in the whole year. It was the first time she'd heard him utter so much as a complete sentence. And yet, despite the lack of audible emotion, she could almost taste the tension hanging around him. End of story. Do not speak any more of it to me.
Normally, Liz would have taken that as the perfect moment to move away and do her own thing, but something about his self-aware, almost ego-centric manner infuriated her. She kept her head, and continued to speak, at him rather than to him, as if his opinion meant nothing to her anyway. 'Okay, well what about Class A to D prisons? Murderers in Class A, working through the ranks until they get to Class D and are released. That's what they do, apparently, so don't you think that might have some effect?'
At this point the boy whipped round to face her, a stern look on his face, and Liz struggled not to gasp aloud. Not just at the sudden movement, but his eyes... They were an icy blue-grey unlike anything she had ever seen. They seemed to pierce her, taking in every single little detail. They flickered up and down her in a split-second, and then returned to her face, gaze sharp. 'What do you think, Elizabeth?'
Liz was startled; too dumb-struck for a moment to correct him on using her full name. 'Um, well, I... I'm not sure what I think. I'd like to say that a lot of criminals change their ways after prison - I would, it sounds awful - but they seem to be the exception to the rule. It just seems like they repeat the same test, in which they are told the right answers. If you can say "I promise not to do it ever again" enough times, they let you go. Sounds cynical, but I don't know. My mind's all over the place with this one.'
The boy smirked, humourlessly. 'So we both have no opinion. There is nothing to discuss.' And he turned round to face the front again, folding his arms childishly as if to say "and that is the end of it".
Liz was so astounded by his rudeness that she did indeed just leave that at that. She scuttled crossly back to her seat and wouldn't look at him again for the entire lecture. The rest of the time was taken up by Mr Howard telling them all about different cases of serial killers and how they turned out, and there was some excitement brought up by the subject of psychopaths.
'Sounds like Sherlock right there,' somebody said, far too loudly to be a mere comment, and the boy at the front fidgeted a bit but otherwise did not react.
Besides that, the lecture went fairly smoothly, and by the time the bell went for dinnertime Liz was beginning to feel a bit less tense about what had happened. As soon as the bell rang the boy at the front was off, his coat flapping behind him, pulling his bag up after him and leaving the room at breakneck speed. Liz stared after him, stricken. That hadn't been because of her, had it? Or that flyaway comment?
Brushing the thought far from her mind, she scooped up her things, nodded a goodbye to Mr Howard, and fled to the canteen.
'So come on then, spill!' Danni cried the moment she sat down, tray of fish and chips clattering on the tabletop. 'What's he like? What'd he say to you?'
'W-what?' Liz was halfway through a mouthful of chicken and rice, and almost choked on it in surprise. 'Who? What are you on about?'
'Sherlock Holmes!' Danni's blue eyes were wide and twinkling with mischief. 'That boy in the lecture just now. What did he say to you? Did he tell you to piss off? Or did you tell him first?'
'Oh!' Sherlock Holmes. So that was his name? 'No, but I kind of wanted to by the end. He's perfectly horrible. He didn't seem to care about what he was listening to - and certainly wasn't the least bit interested in anything anyone had to say. I wonder how the teachers can stand him. I mean, I only spoke to him for a second, but... he's just... hateful.'
Becki stole one of Danni's chips with her fork, waving it around dramatically as she spoke. 'Don't take it personally, Liz. He's like that with everyone. He just seems to not like people in general. I've got him in all my Science lessons - he's a whiz at it, but you should've seen him in Biology. The way he was treating the sheep's eyes... ugh! Miss had to tell him off for putting them over the Bunsen burners. I mean, why would you do that?' She crammed the chip in her mouth, adding with her mouth full, '"It was just an experiment," he said. He's a creep.'
'I think he's gay, myself,' Danni murmured. 'Been trying to talk to him for weeks, but he just looks right through me. Completely uninterested. At least he actually talks around the guys.'
'Nobody's interested in you, Dan. You're ugly,' Becki teased, flicking a pea at her friend.
'And you're a bitch,' Danni retorted, giggling. 'Either way, he's a dick, but he's still pretty fit - am I right or am I right?'
Liz scoffed. 'Whatever you say. I'm not into bad boys. I don't really care, to be honest. He's horrible, and that's all I need to know.'
They didn't talk about Sherlock Holmes any more that dinnertime. At least, not until the last ten minutes of so of break, at which point the subject turned suddenly back round to him again.
It happened because the girls wandered into the library to look up their respective subjects, and Liz stiffened when she saw that the boy in question was there too, scrutinising a Chemistry textbook closely.
Danni spotted him too, and pulled her aside. 'Ignore him. Read your novel or something, pretend he's not there.' She picked up the latest issue of Closer and flicked it open.
Liz tried hard to do so, but for some reason Edgar Allan Poe just couldn't hold her attention today. She kept glancing up at Sherlock Holmes nervously, as if afraid that he would suddenly jump up and decide he was going to set the room alight to see what colour the flames were. She couldn't quite put that past him.
And then one of the younger boys approached him and asked him a question. Liz couldn't hear what was said, but Sherlock groaned and then muttered something long-winded in reply, to which the younger boy paled and then laughed hysterically and scurried back to his mates, who were falling about with laughter. Liz narrowed her eyes at them, but couldn't determine what the joke was.
'What are they...?' But she didn't need to finish her question.
'They say Sherlock Holmes can tell you your whole life story at a glance,' Becki said, without looking up. She pushed her glasses back up onto her sharp nose, accentuating her spatter of freckles. 'Without having any prior knowledge. It's made him famous here, or infamous as the case may be. He can even tell you who you slept with last week, or so I hear.'
'Pity he's not in any of my lectures, or I'd be asking him after everyone on campus,' Danni grinned. 'But somehow I don't think Drama or Music are really his sort of thing, you know?'
'Too right,' Liz murmured, casting another side-long glance at Sherlock. Curled up in one of the chairs, coat still on despite the heat, she could see now how shockingly thin he was, and yet how well-built too. He was quite tall, taller than most of the other students, and his lean frame made him appear even taller. He probably got into a lot of fights. And won them all.
She was curious, though, about this supposed ability. Surely nobody was that clever? There weren't really people like Poirot and Dupin in existence, were there?
She'd insisted that she wasn't interested, that she wasn't planning to go anywhere near him for the rest of her days. But after hearing a thing like that... she couldn't not jump at the chance. And so she determined that the very next time she saw him, she was going to ask him to tell her everything he could figure out about her. Only after that, and her curiosity had been satisfied, would she be more than happy to stay as far away from Sherlock Holmes as the rest of her peers seemed to deem acceptable.
The next morning, Liz left the dorm much earlier than usual, on the excuse that she had urgent homework to be done. Danni and Becki had exchanged smiling glances and allowed her to get away with it. She hadn't told them of her plan - she wanted to be absolutely sure that no-one told him anything about her beforehand. She was going to be more than a little disappointed if it all turned out to be a trick.
Stupidly, she was also going to be disappointed when this Sherlock character couldn't tell her anything that wasn't incredibly obvious. Like that she was right-handed or something. But then, hadn't she always had a problem with setting her hopes too high? Great, she cursed herself bitterly. You've set yourself up for nothing.
She'd even prepared herself beforehand, to try and catch him out. She'd put on make-up for once - lipstick, mascara and blush - parted her hair differently, rolled her sleeves up. She hated looking like that, but it would all easily be fixed in the girls' bathrooms later.
If she ever got this thing over with, that is.
She looked for him for half an hour, searching all the likeliest places: the library, the science labs, the computer suites. The creepy guy was nowhere to be found. Liz stomped back out into the main corridor, frustrated with herself, with him, with what she was doing. Why couldn't she just leave well enough alone? She cast her eyes down all the side corridors furtively, like a predator.
Maybe he just materialises in lessons and otherwise doesn't exist at all. Hovering in the ground, waiting to pop up and scare the living daylights out of-
'OOF!' The sound uncontrollably left her lips as her body made sharp contact with the sharper form of Sherlock Holmes, who had appeared somehow from one of the classrooms. 'God. Sorry. You scared me.'
'Evidently.' He didn't seem quite as affected by the bump as she was, but then he was stronger, and fitter, and armoured by that ominous black coat. 'A little early, aren't you? What are you doing? And don't say homework because that's obviously a lie considering where we are currently standing.'
Liz was heavily disconcerted by the way his gaze lingered on her, scanning her feverishly for something. She was also shocked by how rude he was continuing to be.
Sooner this is over and done with, the better.
'Why don't you tell me?' she challenged, not even trying to keep the venom out of her voice. 'They say you can read faces. If you're that clever, you should just be able to... see what you need to know.'
The boy didn't say anything for a long time, continuing to just watch her furtively, like a curious animal. The longer he stared at her, the more Liz began to feel very awkward, even a bit self-conscious. His expression was completely level; impossible to figure out. Only now did she notice his high, sharp cheekbones - she could have cut herself punching that face. And the way he looked at her... not a flicker of emotion, not a blink, not a waver.
She swallowed, suddenly nervous. This boy was stronger and taller than her, a year or maybe two older, and frankly was a bit frightening. Maybe if she just walked away now before she spooked him...
'Strange,' he said suddenly, in that idiosyncratic baritone purr, and she jumped, startled. 'You're not like the others.'
'What? How... How do you mean?'
'You're frightened of me, but only because of my physical form. Most people just discern me a... freak...' he hissed the word like it was filthy, 'because of my superior intellect. You're just worried I might pull a knife on you because of my coat.'
'Not exactly bashful, are you?' Liz murmured, and then shook her head. 'How did you know what I was thinking just then? I mean, about the knife. That was pretty much my exact thought in that very moment you said it.'
'I followed your eyeline.' Sherlock sighed, as if this conversation were tedious. 'So simple even you could do it. It's nice, though.'
Liz stared at him, lost. 'Sorry, what's nice?'
'To face a different sort of prejudice. It's not often my appearance means more than my reputation these days. I'm not sure whether I prefer it.'
And with that, he swept past her on his way to wherever he was headed, and it took Liz a few moments to remember what she had come all this way for. 'Hey, wait!' she shouted after him, and after a moment he sighed again, and turned back to her.
'What is it?'
'Is it true?'
'Is what true?' It looked like he already knew the answer.
'What they say about you around here. What you can do.'
Sherlock looked up at the ceiling, as if begging it to fall in on him. 'You want to know whether I can read your life in your face.'
Liz wasn't sure if he meant it as a query or as a statement, so she just nodded. 'Unless it's too much trouble,' she said, curtly.
There was a slight pause, then: 'Try me first.'
'I'm curious.' Sherlock smirked, and held out his arms. His coat flapped like a cape taunting a bull. 'Look at me, Elizabeth Strider - the girl who's never seen me before - and tell me what you see.'
'I see tall, dark and ignorant.'
'No, what do you see?' he commanded, ignoring this remark.
Groaning inwardly, Liz decided that the best way to co-ordinate with this weirdo was to go along with his game. She gave him the once-over. Twice-over. What was she meant to be looking for?
She shrugged, irritated. 'Right-handed, maybe. Socially secluded. Still toying with ignorant.'
'You guessed those things.'
'But I'm right, aren't I? Especially about the ignorant.'
Sherlock Holmes tilted his head to one side, in a look that stated do you really think so. Liz bristled, and took an involuntary step back as he approached her.
'Alright,' he said smoothly. 'Now it's my turn.'
Liz bit her lip, and stood her ground. This had better be good.
He took a deep breath, and then, eyes closed, announced the following in one complete breath. 'You're right-handed, suffer from inexorable insomnia, and you're looking to enter either forensics or police work despite your step-father's wishes - he'd prefer you to be a lawyer like him - but he's not really all that bothered because clearly he dotes on you, and your friends want you to go on a diet with them but I wouldn't listen to them, you're perfectly healthy.'
Liz's mouth dropped open. She gaped like a drowning fish for a moment before hastily recollecting herself. Sherlock simply rolled his grey-blue eyes, obviously used to this sort of response.
'How... on earth... could you know all that from my face?'
'The same way I know that your mother's a vegetarian and that you put all that make-up on just to test me. Straighten yourself out for God's sake; only fifteen minutes left until first lesson.' And with a swish of his coat, he turned and strode quickly away, without once looking back. Suddenly Liz felt utterly alone in the world, as though he'd taken her energy, her thoughts, along with him. Her heart was pounding.
He had been right. On every count.
She'd never told anyone that her mum was a vegetarian. Or that her step-dad was a lawyer. She just hadn't found the time. So how could he possibly know?
Mind racing, she made her way to the nearest bathroom. She needed to get all that muck off her face. Once inside and clean she glared at her reflection, trying to find anything that could have somehow given any information of that sort away. But it was impossible.
Liz leaned back against the door, breathing heavy and face still dripping softly with tap water. She glanced up once more into the mirror. All she saw was a young girl with flowing dark hair and fierce, frightened eyes. Just an ordinary girl. A stranger in her own skin.
This strange, manic... freakish boy had managed to read her life like one of her novels. Just like Becki had said. But had it satisfied her curiosity? Not one bit.
She wanted answers.