July 08th, 2009
Helmand province, Afghanistan
It’s scarcely midmorning, but the sun is already a white hole high in the bleached blue of the sky, and the air shimmers hotly above the pale, parched earth. John squints against the glare, despite his tinted safety glasses and the shading rim of his combat helmet.
“Something’s wrong,” he says, glancing around the walled courtyard. “Where is everyone? Hinde, do you have anything on icom?”
“No, sir,” Hinde says, “and the last round of drone intel showed no Taliban activity in the area.”
“Right, we can all relax, then,” John mutters, winning a slight snort of amusement from Blackwood.
John takes his hand from under his assault rifle and touches the radio control clipped to the front of his body armor.
“McMath, any sign of life on your side?” he says into the microphone of the radio headset he’s wearing inside his helmet.
“No, sir,” McMath says through the headset's earpiece.
“This house was occupied when we came through here a week ago,” Blackwood says.
“Maybe they just packed up and left,” Henn says.
“Except they didn’t actually pack,” John says, jerking his chin towards a scatter of baskets and jars clustered against the wall of the house.
Blackwood clicks his breath in through his teeth discontentedly.
“Let’s take a look,” John says, lifting the stock of his assault rifle to his shoulder. “Keep your eyes and ears wide open.”
He moves forwards into the stark shadow of the house eaves, sets his back to the rough clay wall, and slides to the corner. He cranes his head to look, before stepping round and moving along the adjacent wall to the doorway. Blackwood, Hinde, and Henn take up position across the front of the house with their assault rifles raised. John looks over at Blackwood, nods deliberately once, twice, and then jerks himself forwards off the wall and around to slam the sole of his desert boot into the rickety wooden door. It crashes open in a shower of splinters and a screeching of rusty hinges. John swings his rifle up as he lunges across the threshold - and instantly gags at the heated stench of blood and decay.
“Christ,” Blackwood says from behind him.
The windowless room is dark after the dazzling daylight outside. All John can make out are nightmare shadows of deeper darkness splashed across the floor and walls, and ghost pale glimpses of dead faces lolling impossibly over gaping black throats. He stumbles backwards out of the doorway, twists aside, and bends to cough a mouthful of vomit onto the ground. He sucks saliva into his mouth, spits, and wipes the back of his hand across his lips.
“Jesus,” Henn says, his voice thinning. "Oh, Jesus, is that - ?”
“Stay steady,” John says, his voice raw from vomiting. “We’re not safe out here and I need you.”
Henn nods fiercely and flexes his grip on his assault rifle. John swings his own assault rifle aside on its strap and digs into the pouch behind his right hip. He pulls out a field dressing, unwraps it, uncaps his water bottle and douses the large square of thick wadding. He clasps the wet dressing over his nose and mouth and steps back into the house.
He stands for a moment to let his eyes adjust to the darkness, and then picks his way among the bodies. Flies swirl away at his approach, drone dully among the rafters, and settle again behind him. He stoops and lifts an out-thrown hand slightly, then drops it again. He stands, blinking hard enough that the tears filling his eyes shatter and fall onto his cheeks. He makes his way back to the door and steps out into the sunlight again. Blackwood grimaces, already reading more in John’s expression than he wants to know.
“The women and children are in there,” John says, as he discards the water-soaked dressing and takes his assault rifle back into his hands. “They’ve been dead a couple of days.”
“Oh, Jesus,” Henn says. “The kids? Who fucking does that?”
John looks at him, lifting his eyebrows slightly.
"I'm fine," Henn says with a quick shake of his head and a frown.
"Let's check the outbuildings," John says. "See if we can find the men."
Montague Street, London
“I’d invite you in, if I could be sure you wouldn’t accept,” Sherlock says without lifting his gaze from the papers spread in front of him.
“Then I’ll come in without an invitation,” Mycroft says, crossing the threshold.
“Oh. I rather thought you couldn’t,” Sherlock says. "Duped by the facile commercialization of an Eastern European horror-tale. How embarrassing."
Mycroft sits down in the wing chair next to Sherlock’s desk, and holds out the manila file folder he’s carrying.
“Not interested," Sherlock says, shaking his head. "In your case, or in whatever cheese-paring inducement you’re planning to offer me.”
“Anything,” Mycroft says quietly. “I will do or say or give you anything you want, if you find the perpetrators of this crime.”
Sherlock’s eyes widen and then narrow intently. He takes the folder from Mycroft’s hand, flipping it open. For a second, the uppermost photograph is just a vivid juxtaposition of pallid skin and black hair and darkly pulped flesh, but then he parses the sense of the image and his eyes flick closed for a split second. He opens them again and shuffles through the remaining photographs.
“Who were they?” he asks.
“We don’t know,” Mycroft says. “They were found just a few hours ago.”
“But they’ve been dead several days, judging by the discoloration and the disintegration of the more damaged areas,” Sherlock murmurs to himself.
Mycroft shifts uncomfortably and purses his lips.
“Four men ranging in age from - sixty? Down to early twenties?” Sherlock says, skimming back through the photographs. “There’s a distinct family resemblance between these two, and this one, and maybe even this one. They weren’t held for long before this was done, their fingernails and beards are well kept. A single family had four males go missing in the week, and no one reported it? Or you just haven’t looked for a report?”
“People file a missing persons report if they have confidence in the administration’s ability to act,” Mycroft says, “If they haven’t, then they don’t. And there’s the difficulty of actually locating the report, assuming it was ever made.”
Sherlock stares at him in surprise.
“They were found by an American patrol in Kandahar province,” Mycroft says. “In Afghanistan.”
“There have been twenty thousand deaths in Afghanistan,” Sherlock frowns. “What do you care about four more?”
“People die in wars, Sherlock,” Mycroft says bleakly, “but this isn’t war. This is - unacceptable.”
Sherlock looks down at the photographs again.
“Why him?” he mutters.
“What?” Mycroft asks, his gaze sharpening.
“The evidence of sexual abuse on the bodies is ostentatious,” Sherlock grimaces, “but the youngest one was abused the least, even though he must have been really quite beautiful when he was alive. Most of the perpetrators' energy seems to have been expended on this one, the only one who’s short-haired and clean-shaven. The words cut into the body - he’s the only one that was done to.”
He lifts one of the photographs, holds it at arm’s length, and considers it carefully.
“That’s really quite stunning,” he says.
“I was certainly stunned when I saw it,” Mycroft says.
Sherlock glances at him, and then back at the photograph.
“I don’t mean as a crime,” he says. “I mean as an image. Magnificent profile, the open eyes, the way the words cut into him are bracketed by his open hand - ‘we did this’.”
“I’m pleased to see that you haven’t completely smothered your artistic sensibilities,” Mycroft says. “You used to be so gifted in that way.”
Sherlock drops the photograph back into the folder.
“Of course the effect is striking,” he announces. “That's the whole point of the exercise, after all. Otherwise, why expend so much energy on the insensate in the first place?”
“Insensate?” Mycroft echoes.
“These men were already dead, or at least unconscious when the rest was done to them,” Sherlock says. “There are no marks from the wrist ligatures. A man conscious and enduring rape and torture of that ferocity would have practically torn his own hands off.”
“Thank God for small mercies,” Mycroft says quietly.
“Indeed,” Sherlock nods. “Simple sadism doesn’t narrow a field of suspects much, but this is something more complicated, which is always helpful.”
Mycroft’s mouth softens in faint dismay, and then in rueful affection.
“Four men, each killed with a single shot to the head and then sexually abused, mutilated, and a message in English carved into one body,” Sherlock says keenly. “This was carefully staged; the product was what mattered to the perpetrators, not the process - but who’s the message for? And who are ‘we’? All right, send me everything you’ve got, though you must realize there’s only so much I can do with secondhand data - ”
“There’s a plane ready to leave at RAF Northolt,” Mycroft says, “and the necessary clothes and papers are in the car that’s waiting to take you there.”
“You want me to go to Afghanistan?” Sherlock says, turning his head so that he’s looking at Mycroft from the corners of his eyes.
“I want you to ensure that this monstrosity does not occur again, in a country I - we are partially responsible for administering,” Mycroft answers.
“Well, I do applaud your concern for the proper conduct of the completely pointless invasion and occupation of a sovereign nation," Sherlock drawls, but it is rather outside my area of operations.”
“I realize your personal geography doesn’t extend beyond the M25,” Mycroft says, “but as I said: in return, anything that’s mine to give, and many things that aren’t.”
Sherlock lifts his chin sharply, considering Mycroft from under furrowed brows. Mycroft stares back, his eyes steady but his mouth twisting uncertainly.
“Very well,” Sherlock says at last. “I’ll need a few minutes.”
“Of course,” Mycroft says. “Though, I have taken the liberty of having a large dose of Tofisopam waiting for you in the car. I think you’ll find its aftereffects are less debilitating than your usual choice.”
"In that case, I'll get my coat,” Sherlock says with a small smile.
Mycroft's expression broadens into satisfaction, but then his eyes turn wary.
"I am relying on your professional discretion, Sherlock," he says. "You will find the guilty party, and I will deal with them. There's no reason to cause unnecessary distress to anyone else.”
"What's the matter, Mycroft?" Sherlock says. “Afraid the British public doesn’t have the artistic stomach to appreciate these pictures?”
Something turns to steel beneath Mycroft’s soft features.
"Don't worry,” Sherlock says lazily. “I’ll make sure no one makes a scandal out of your perfectly proper war."
A few hours later, Sherlock is slouched in his seat, his head tipped back and his eyes closed, with a small overhead light shining down onto him in the otherwise darkened plane. He lifts his head and opens his eyes as he extracts his phone from the inside pocket of his jacket. He contemplates the number displayed for the incoming call, but doesn’t answer. He peers out of the window. All that’s visible is the illuminated wing of the plane surrounded by deep blackness. His phone signals an incoming text. He sits up straighter and opens the message.
Answer your phone.
Where am I? he texts back.
Over Syria. Answer your phone. Possible lead on identities.
His phone displays the same number for an incoming call, and this time he answers.
“Yesterday a Royal Marine patrol reported an incident in Helmand province,” Mycroft says without waiting for Sherlock to greet him. “All the women and children from a single family were found murdered, and the men are missing. The officer leading the patrol reported seeing three men at the house on previous occasions - estimated ages sixty-five, forty-five, and twenty-five.”
“Excellent, I’ll start with the reporting officer. Who is he? Where is he?”
“Captain John Watson, Forty Commando, at Forward Operating Base Sangin,” Mycroft enunciates crisply.
“How do I get there?” Sherlock asks.
“You don’t,” Mycroft says. “I’m having you rerouted to Camp Bastion, and Captain Watson will be brought there by helicopter.”
“Acceptable,” Sherlock says.
“Sherlock? Do try to be careful, won’t you?” Mycroft says lightly.
Sherlock cuts the call, and tucks his phone back into his pocket. He stares out at the darkness, strumming the ball of his thumb repetitively across his lower lip.
Camp Bastion, Helmand province
“Mister Holmes, sir, welcome to Camp Bastion,” the officer at the foot of the plane’s steps says crisply as Sherlock emerges blinking into the bright morning light.
Sherlock is wearing his coat, with a soft gray leather duffel bag slung over one shoulder and the manila file folder in his hand.
“Oh - wonderful,” he growls, looking around as he slouches down the steps.
The sky is vast, blankly blue from horizon to horizon, and utterly empty except for one plane coming in on a low approach and another slanting up into the air having just taken off. Acres and acres of pale gray concrete stretch out on all sides, and beyond them infinitely more acres of pale beige ground run out to low beige hills. Aircraft, from monstrous transports to arrowhead fighter jets, are dotted or ranked across the concrete; the helicopters are ranged across the open ground farther away. There’s a single gray road running off the airfield to a sprawling settlement of olive green tents and prefabricated buildings in the distance.
“I’m Captain Ormond, sir. I’ll be your escort during your stay,” Ormond says, shaking Sherlock’s hand briefly. “May I take your bag?”
Sherlock relinquishes his bag, and Ormond stows it in the back of the jeep that’s parked next to the plane.
“This is your security pass, sir,” Ormond says, offering a laminated identification card with a metal clip attached. “You’ll need to wear it clearly displayed at all times.”
Sherlock takes the card and puts it in his coat pocket. Ormond looks dubious but doesn’t protest.
“I see,” Ormond says dryly. “You’ve been assigned quarters in Accommodation Block Three. I can take you there now, if you’d like to get settled.”
“Is Captain Watson here yet?” Sherlock says.
“Yes, sir,” Ormond says at once. “He got in about an hour ago.”
“Take me to him,” Sherlock says, shrugging his coat off and throwing it over his bag.
The officers' common room in the Royal Marines' operational administration building is a Frankenstein construction of semi-permanent tenting, prefabricated floors, and furnishings suggestive of a particularly soulless hotel chain, albeit one where the guests wear pale camouflage combat clothing, and the usual scattering of luggage is transmuted to canvas packs and body armor in the corners, with helmets and assault rifles left lying on the couches. Men stare with undisguised curiosity at Sherlock as he stands beside Ormond, the folder in one hand and his other hand dipped into his hip pocket.
“McGuire,” Ormond says, attracting the attention of a lieutenant sprawling in a leatherette club chair. “Where’s Watson?”
“Mess, sir,” McGuire says, straightening up a bit.
Ormond leads Sherlock down a canvas-roofed hallway, through double doors into a large area filled with Formica tables each surrounded by metal chairs. Four men in tee shirts or shirtsleeves are sitting at one table; John, in full combat clothing, is sitting at another table with his pack, body armor, helmet, and assault rifle piled next to him. He’s deeply engrossed in eating ice cream from a waxed paper cup, but as soon as Sherlock and Ormond enter he sets it aside and gets to his feet.
“Wait here; I don’t need you hovering,” Sherlock says to Ormond.
Ormond raises his eyebrows but stays by the door while Sherlock crosses to John's table.
“Captain Watson,” Sherlock says, extending his hand. “I’m Sherlock Holmes.”
“Sir,” John says, grasping Sherlock’s hand.
Sherlock pulls out a chair and sits down, dropping the folder onto the table. John sits down again, too.
They make a strikingly unmatched pair on opposite sides of the table. John’s face and his cropped hair are respectively suntanned and sun-bleached to almost the same shade of dark gold, and his eyes look startlingly blue by contrast; his clothing is worn at the edges, sandblasted and sun-softened. Sherlock’s a thing of flawless, pale skin and dark, unruly hair, and in the half-dimness of the mess hall his eyes are practically colorless; the thin cloth of his suit jacket is a little crumpled across the chest, but otherwise everything about him is as pristine and polished as if it has never been worn before.
“I’ve read the report you made,” Sherlock says. “About the women and children found dead near Musa Qala.”
John tilts his head slightly in acknowledgement.
“You said they’d been dead at least a day, but less than three,” Sherlock says. “How did you know?”
“Incomplete rigor mortis,” John says, sliding his cup aimlessly on the tabletop. “The smell was too bad for them to have been there less than twelve hours, so that means the rigor was dissipating, not developing. Twenty-four hours is my lowest estimate for how long it would take to get to that degree of - yield. There were flies but no maggots, and that’s less than three days at this time of year.”
Sherlock lifts his chin, contemplating John carefully. John stares back, implacable except for the faintest creasing at the corners of his eyes.
“Had the women been raped?” Sherlock asks.
“I didn’t make post mortem examinations,” John says, and then when Sherlock shakes his head impatiently, “I don’t think so, their clothes weren’t … ”
He shrugs slightly.
“The men who are missing,” Sherlock says. “Would you recognize them if you saw them?”
“Yes, of course.”
“As distinct from other Afghan males of the same age and general appearance, I mean.”
Sherlock pulls a sheaf of photographs out of the folder and pushes them towards John. The original images have been enlarged and cropped to show only the grayish-white faces of the corpses. John leafs through the photographs, nodding wearily.
“Yes, these are the three from the house, but I haven’t seen this man before,” he says, skimming one photograph back to Sherlock. “Short hair and no beard means he’s probably one of ours, though.”
“Um, us, law and order, the good guys - some of the good guys, maybe,” John says with a quick, humorless smile. “Afghan National Army, or police, or maybe just an interpreter.”
He frowns, leafing through the photographs again.
“The women and children had their throats cut,” he says, “but I see the men were shot. That’s neat work; it takes a bit of skill to shoot someone in the head at close range and not make a complete mess.”
“You learned that in the British army?” Sherlock asks.
“No,” John says shortly.
He drops the photographs onto the table and pushes them back towards Sherlock.
“It’s – pretty much what I expected,” John says.
Sherlock lifts his eyebrows, querying.
“Murder’s more or less the standard of political discourse in Helmand,” John shrugs. “You don’t like someone’s politics, kill them - or if you really want to make a point, kill them and their family.”
“It’s really that bad?” Sherlock frowns.
“This is a five-way war,” John says, his face turned slightly aside as he looks up at Sherlock from under his brows. “There’s us, the Taliban, the Afghans who hate us but think we’re the best chance of some kind of stable future for this country, the Afghans who hate the Taliban but think they’re the best chance, and the Afghans who hate all of us and just want everyone to get out of their country. It doesn’t matter what side you’re on, there’re four other sides who want you dead. People end up like this - ” he gestures at the photographs, “ - all the time. A whole family, men and women and children? It’s unusual, but I’d love to be able say it’s never happened in Helmand before.”
“Why were you interested in this family at all?” Sherlock asks. “You said you’d been at the house on previous occasions, and you were there again yesterday. Why?”
“No reason,” John says. “Just the patrol route we happened to walk those days.”
Sherlock shakes his head, not understanding.
“That’s what we do,” John says. “We walk patrols; sometimes nothing happens but most days there’s some kind of a fight.”
“You - walk around until you’re attacked, and then you fight back,” Sherlock says doubtfully. “That’s the actual strategy?”
“Yes, pretty much,” John says, stifling a laugh.
“Going well, is it?” Sherlock smirks.
“Going great,” John says with a grin.
“What are you even doing in Sangin?” Sherlock demands, eyes vivid with amusement and curiosity.
“Helping the Afghan government secure a better future for this country,” John says, his expression smoothing into pleasant neutrality.
“Not you the British army," Sherlock says, “you John Watson.”
“With respect, sir, that’s hardly relevant to - whatever it is you’re doing here,” John says, his eyes darkening slightly.
“Hmm. You think I’m prying,” Sherlock says. “You think that’s too personal a question to ask when I don’t know you.”
John’s gaze slides aside and fixes on some point of nothing beyond Sherlock’s right shoulder.
“All right,” Sherlock says reasonably. “I know that you were a doctor, training to be a trauma surgeon, but something happened to you in Belfast that made you drop that, made you enlist in a capacity that requires a couple of O-levels and an inordinate appetite for danger. If I were prying, I’d ask what it was that happened.”
John’s eyes widen, his gaze falling back to Sherlock’s face.
“How - how could you know - any of that?” he says.
Sherlock presses his lips between his teeth for a moment, stifling a smile.
“I don’t know, I see. Your pack has an olive cross, so you’re carrying augmented medical supplies. But no Red Cross patch, so you’re not protected medical personnel; you’re a fighting soldier. In fact, you’re a commando stationed at the raw edge of this war: you’re about as fighting as it gets. That means the Royal Marines wouldn’t have trained you to do more than keep someone alive until real medical help arrives … yet you’re a nice judge of rigor mortis and gunshot wounds to the head, and you said you didn’t learn that in the army. Who else sees the results of that kind of violence often enough to learn something about it? A doctor, specializing in trauma medicine.
"The age limit for enlistment is twenty-six, so you couldn’t have been more than a couple of years into specialized training when you joined up. So where would a civilian doctor have to be, say ten years ago, to see a significant number of gunshot wounds in less than two years? Royal Victoria, Belfast.
"You’ve been in the army ten years, and the wear on your gear tells me you’ve been on active combat duty a lot, multiple tours certainly. Yet you’re still only a captain, so you began as a private soldier. As a doctor, as a surgeon, you could have been a medical officer with a starting rank of captain, but you deliberately chose not to do that.
"I know you well enough to ask a slightly personal question, don’t you think?”
“How could you possibly know I was a surgeon?” John protests, but his eyes are alight with interest.
“Bit of a reach,” Sherlock admits, “but you had a medical degree, strong nerves and small hands. If you weren’t a surgeon, plenty of people must have suggested that you should be.”
“That’s - amazing,” John laughs.
“You think so?” Sherlock frowns, drawing his chin in slightly.
“Incredible,” John grins.
Sherlock exhales a smile, his expression soft and almost uncertain for a moment, and then shakes his head a little. He gathers the photographs back into the folder and stands up. John rises, too.
“Well, thank you for your time, Captain Watson,” Sherlock says.
“It was very instructive,” John smiles.
Sherlock turns away and John sits down again, but then Sherlock turns back abruptly.
“You didn’t answer the question,” he says. “What are you doing in Sangin?”
John looks up at him, eyes sharp and speculative.
“Indulging myself,” he says.
“That’s a rather dangerous form of indulgence,” Sherlock says, his mouth quirked.
“Best kind,” John says gravely.
Sherlock’s gaze drops from John's face to his hands - deeply tanned and rough knuckled - and then lifts again. There’s a long beat when one or other man seems about to say something more, but neither one does. Finally Sherlock turns away again and walks back to where Ormond’s still waiting by the door.