Chapter 1: Signs and Portents.
Sherlock had been patiently, relentlessly accumulating signs, portents. Evidence.
John had been disappearing for hours to medical appointments that he would not discuss, and to which he expressly did not invite Sherlock to accompany him.
Sherlock took a violently proprietary and deep (i.e., at a cellular level) interest in John's health in general, and his war injuries in particular.
He would especially have relished the opportunity to analyze John's X-rays, MRI images, and medical chart notes regarding the state of his shoulder injury. He had comprehensively read up in all of the medical journals articles pertaining to the type of bullet wound John had suffered: Shattering the clavicle, scapula and part (fortunately, not all) of the the gleno-humeral joint.
John, just once, had let him scrutinize the scars in bright light with his magnifier, something Sherlock had positively itched to do from that very first day; but then within less than one minute John had gently insisted that Sherlock stop, and had tugged his jumper back on.
Sherlock had been sorely dismayed. He had fully intended to continue examining it for at least a full hour, and did not understand why John simply quietly and politely withdrew to his bedroom, pretending to work on his blog.
Otherwise, even now, the topic, and the sight, of the scars was verboten in 221b.
* * *
John kept a separate postal box for correspondence that formerly would have gone to his London military housing unit.
That did not necessarily mean, however, that John took every advisable measure to ensure that Sherlock never saw such correspondence.
Mostly, it consisted of junk mail; belated and inappropriately joking greeting cards from Harry, who could never be bothered to update her address book to reflect John's residence at 221b; and the occasional missive from the British Army.
Naturally, Sherlock devoured these communications, echoes of John's past, gleaning any scrap of usable data that might assist with his ongoing construction of the outlines of a solution to the mystery that was John in Afghanistan.
* * *
Today, while John was at the clinic, Sherlock opened, and planned to read, John's most recent correspondence from the Army. Wearing gloves of course – while the statistical likelihood of the correspondence ever being dusted for fingerprints was miniscule, he had his standards of professional conduct and almost never made exceptions, even at home.
"Dear Captain John Watson (M.D.):
In response to your inquiry, the Army takes the position that . . ."
Unexpectedly, the sound of John’s footstep was on the stair and he heard John speaking to Mrs. Hudson, muffled through the closed door. Sherlock became aware that he had been holding his breath when he observed himself becoming dizzy.
Unconsciously, his gloved fingers had been clenching the letter. Very hard. Unavoidably, this had made visible indentations in the letter, which now looked quite rumpled. He commanded his brain to switch off the explosions of neural stimulation triggered by the missive.
He shoved the letter in his pocket.
He would have to restore the letter to its original state. He knew there was a steam iron about the flat. Question being where.
He tried to summon forth a visual of the iron.
Now Sherlock vaguely recalled using it to make toasted cheese sandwiches, once, when the oven was occupied with drying out some water-logged evidence to concentrate blood traces -- but that must have have been months ago. Before John? He had deleted it. (His garments were impeccably laundered by a service and had never been touched by this particular appliance.)
He was peering under the sofa when John entered.
"What in the hell are you doing? Don't tell me you've started up with the fungus again," John groaned with irritation; but, Sherlock thought, a somewhat dampened, even rote irritation. Sherlock found that reading the emotional state of others, and usually John, was ridiculously easy-- but, of course, one had to trouble to actually do the reading -- and John was the only human being whose emotional state he cared about. John's face was also (usually) far more expressive than most. John did not, in Sherlock's opinion, possess anything that could be called a creditable poker-face. So, John was irritable. Possibly with Sherlock, possibly just a trying shift at the clinic.
Truth was the best policy when lying.
"Looking for the steam iron, of course. What have you done with it?"
John went directly to a cupboard where the steam iron and a can of spray starch were housed, alone, on the top shelf.
"It took me an hour to get the cheese off, so if you're hungry let's go out, shall we?"
John was astonished when Sherlock agreed to go without demur.
* * *
Sherlock guided them towards Angelo’s. John no longer protested when Angelo brought the candle. John was preoccupied, but sat up and took note when Sherlock actually ordered some pasta, and began eating it.
"What are you doing?" he asked with a disbelieving smirk.
"Eating. Pasta Diavolo."
"Why? You never order pasta."
" You like me to eat."
"Of course I do. Champion. But usually I have to lobby you for about a week. Per bite."
Sherlock smiled and nibbled the bread, causing a flurry of activity as Angelo hastened with amazement to refill the bread basket, a gesture without precedent.
"Tell me about your day at the clinic," Sherlock asked with charming attention, touching John's sleeve. "Tell me about your first patient." He sat back with every appearance of rapt attention.
"My day? . . .It was . . .a woman with a bronchial infection."
"And what did you prescribe?"
John was getting quite puzzled. "An antibiotic and an inhaler."
"Which one what?"
"Why not ciprofloxacin?"
"Because — well, I tried that before, and it didn’t work."
"What was the cause?"
"Of what? Oh, her illness. Common cold into secondary infection. Exacerbated by smoking."
"Did you give her patches?"
"Yes, of course, doubt she'll bloody use them."
"Why not? I did."
"You did. Why? You love smoking."
"You hate smoking."
"Yes, but . . . you were using patches that very first day - the pink lady, remember?"
Sherlock merely smiled.
John had the good grace to blush at this. Inducing a blush upon John’s face was one of Sherlock’s very favorite activities. There were others, even more spectacular to observe, but not in a restaurant. At least not during business hours.
"Tell me about your second patient."
"Bloody hell, Sherlock is there a hidden camera? What's with the twenty questions??"
Sherlock was silent, processing.
"I thought it was considered. . . Considerate. . .to inquire after your – er — one's – partner's work day, over dinner. Am I wrong?"
John guffawed. "When have you been considerate?"
Sherlock did not look hurt at this. It was a fair question.
He searched his memory.
"There was the time that I agreed not to use the kitchen for experiments for 48 hours," he offered proudly.
"Only because you moved them to the bathtub!"
Sherlock detected a quarrelsome tone to John's voice. So, the over-dinner chat had not served its intended purpose.
Because Lestrade, telephoning earlier to inquire whether Sherlock was available after the Swiss adventure, could not resist inquiring, in suggestive tones, whether everything was "all right at home with John."
As though he, the noble Detective Inspector Lestrade, was waiting a step behind to pick up the pieces when Sherlock, inevitably, mucked everything up.
"Better step up your game, Sherlock," Lestrade said as he rang off. Unbelievable.
He should have shot the prick when he had the chance, back at Pope’s Grotto, Sherlock ruminated darkly.
Notwithstanding the insufferable presumption of Lestrade, Sherlock was now thinking that actually, illicit snooping into John’s private correspondence would probably qualify as "mucking things up." John was fiercely private about that area of his life. Now the letter was burning a hole in his pocket. John had not observed that Sherlock had not taken his coat off when they entered. He didn’t want to risk the letter falling out of the pocket.
John, if anything, now seemed more tense, and he could plainly see the minute stiffness to the set of his left shoulder that meant John was concealing a bone-crushing pain radiating from the site of his old wound.
Sherlock he changed the subject.
Angelo dropped a plate.
* * *
Back at 221b, they got ready for bed. While John was in the bathroom brushing his teeth, Sherlock swiftly scanned the letter:
"Captain John Watson (M.D.):
"In response to your inquiry, the Army takes the position that a soldier who has undergone a successful shoulder joint replacement may be returned and deployed to full active duty. A soldier of your distinguished record is strongly encouraged to consider the full medical options available at no cost through Veteran's Services. As you are aware, your medical leave is not yet classified as full medical discharge and there remain 90 days within which you may elect to proceed with redeployment pending a rehabilitation certification. extensions of time, with appropriate documentation, are routinely granted. We remain ready to etc. etc.. . ."
Sherlock’s vision blurred, and he tore the letter into tiny shreds and threw it into the fire.
When John came to bed, still holding his shoulder stiffly, Sherlock simply kissed him gently, even chastely, and watched him all through the night in his fitful sleep.
* * *
The next morning, after John was gone, Sherlock called Mycroft.
"I want his files. Medical and his Army file."
"Hmmm . . .why?"
"None of your business, Mycroft. Just do it. For me."
"Have you seen them?"
"What do you think?"
"How many . . . kills . . .does he have?"
"Why," Mycroft asked. "Why do you need to know?"
"Well, you probably already know, don't you?"
"Well, I live with him."
"Are you afraid?"
Sherlock said, inside: yes, I am so afraid.
"No, of course not. He won't kill me."
"Better you should ask," Mycroft said, "how many John saved. "
Sherlock already knew the answer to that, that was easy. There was only one statistic that counted there.
He had saved one.
To be continued. . .
Chapter 2: Korengal Calling.
John's shoulder seemed to be getting worse. He was spending long hours in physical therapy and coming back with an expression that was increasingly alien to Sherlock. Possibly, his confidence in his infallible ability to read John had been misplaced.
Privately, Sherlock had concluded from his covert examination of John's Army correspondence, and from observing John's recent punishing fitness regime, that John was preparing some sort of contingency plan for what to do in the event Sherlock inevitably got himself killed in the course of a case. Sherlock counted no less than four very close calls with death, not counting his near-fatal cocaine overdose, in the span of just the past few months. John had saved him from each of these, and in other ways too fundamental for Sherlock even to articulate.
Finally, Sherlock decided to risk whatever consequences would arise from prying into forbidden territory.
"It is obvious that the reason for your shoulder pain worsening is that you are working it far too hard."
John's face was pale and stony. He did not answer, but shrugged his jacket off and threw down a heavy pack he had been carrying around lately with quiet stoicism, refusing to favor the left shoulder.
"You aren't resting enough between these sessions," Sherlock pursued.
Still no answer.
"Are you ever going to tell me why?"
John's back was to Sherlock and now his shoulders sagged a little. Sherlock saw that his chest was heaving.
"Sherlock, if I ask you a favor, will you do it?"
There was a time when such a question would have caused Sherlock's rapidfire thought processes to produce a number of preconditions, prevarications; even evasions. Now he simply said:
He waited. John didn't turn around. "Then leave it alone. Please."
He started to go off to his own room, but without realizing it, Sherlock found himself quite firmly stopping him by grabbing his right arm. For a horrible moment Sherlock thought John would actually pull away; the strong muscles of John's arms had become like iron.
"No," Sherlock said quietly. "I won't. Not anymore."
John did start tugging now, actually trying to escape from Sherlock's grasp.
Sherlock could not believe this was happening.
Before this could get worse, he conquered all of his worst impulses to the contrary – impulses to seize John, keep him locked away, a prisoner if need be, until this nightmare passed -- the visions were almost overpowering — and slowly released his hand from John's arm.
John would not look at him. "You said anything."
"No, John, no -- you asked if I would do you a favor. I may not be – I have become aware – of my – shortcomings . . . but even someone such as myself can see that this – this– is hurting you. I need to know what this is, everything, and you – well, you need to tell me. You're . . .hurting yourself. Don't ask me – don't ask me to hurt you. That's what you meant. For me to just – stand by and watch you take it.
"And I can't, I just can't do it."
John's face, if anything, had become paler, harder and more impassive. Sherlock briefly wondered if this is how others had experienced his own impenetrability, before. Before John. It felt like losing his center of gravity.
John took a crumpled piece of paper from his pocket and tossed it at Sherlock, who easily caught it. He froze as he understood that he had been found out. Before he could start to try to justify his conduct, John started to speak.
"I won't be getting any better. This is as good as it will ever get for me," John said, remotely. He lifted his left arm to show how it would not raise much above his shoulder.
Sherlock kept his mouth shut and read the letter. Dated yesterday, it informed Captain Watson that after all, he had "been deemed an unsuitable candidate for shoulder replacement, and he should anticipate contact from the appropriate departmental officials concerning his medical discharge."
Sherlock's heart soared, but he swiftly tried to clamp down on his emerging joy and relief, seeing John's pain.
"Well, you have been doing well enough, really. If you wouldn't strain it so, it wouldn't pain you. . ."
John sat down heavily and put his face in his hands. Sherlock felt an urge to go to him but, remembering John pulling away a moment before, he just stood, awkwardly. He didn't think he could bear it if John pulled away a second time. When John finally looked up, his face was devastated. Sherlock felt a cold fury rising for whoever, whatever was doing this. Doing this to John. He would make them pay, somehow.
"All right. You're right. You deserve to know. I'll tell you now. What I can. Some things, though, I can't tell you. You're just going to have to accept that."
"All right," Sherlock said, mind already racing ahead, to how he would go about finding out the parts John would not tell him. Because, infuriatingly, Mycroft had after all refused to turn over John's files to Sherlock, causing an unbridgeable breach in their always frosty relations.
"Sherlock. I haven't known how to tell you this, so I'm just going to say it.
"I have to go back to Afghanistan."
* * *
"No. . ." Sherlock whispered.
John's expression was adamant. "What I mean is, I am going back to Afghanistan. There is someone there – who needs my help, and I have been trying to help, from here, in London. . .but it's no good. Not good enough. I have to be there, in Afghanistan, to do any good at all. And I would give anything – not to go back like this." He slapped his own shoulder, where the injury was. "But if that is what I have to do, I will. I must."
"Why? I don't understand. You're about to be discharged, it says so in this letter. What can possibly concern you there, now? And you’re a doctor, aren’t you, you can still do surgery, you are fine, what does it matter?"
"A man from my troop. . .he's in trouble. Serious trouble. I’m the only one who can help him. It has to do. . .with the day I got shot. With my getting shot. And what happened, afterward.
"You see, there's an investigation. And from what I understand, a court martial is about to go down."
Sherlock was relieved in a way. A court martial, a trial. John as a witness. Maybe he could just fly in for a week, do what he had to do, and come home. And Sherlock would go with him, of course.
"Don't look like that," John said. "If I go, I need to go in and be able to . . .do some things. Take care of some things. I thought if I got my bloody shoulder fixed, I could just redeploy, go in and be able to -- but now I have to find another way."
"Why? What are you saying? Can't you just go, give your evidence, and come home?"
John looked at Sherlock with an entirely new expression. It took a moment for Sherlock to actually process it, identify it.
"Sherlock, there's things you just can't . . .can 't understand. I'm sorry, but it's true. There is no way I want to be going back to Afghanistan as a discharged – cripple – no matter how many medals they pin on me. When I go back there, I have to have – standing, I have to be able to make a difference."
Sherlock felt as though John were speaking a foreign tongue. In a way, he was. For a moment he was at a loss for what to say. A million questions battled for precedence in his brain, but what he heard himself say was,
"But, in Scotland. . .we said --- forever. Now, you're leaving." Unbelievably his voice was shaking but he didn't care.
John shook his head, but his expression did not soften. "Not leaving you. Never that, Sherlock. Leaving London. I have to –"
There was a brisk knock at the door. They hadn’t heard any steps on the stair. Then John rose to answer it, clearly relieved by the interruption.
"George, what in the hell -- come in," John opened the door. A very tall, angular man with a deep tan and a granite jaw entered. He was wearing a close fitting black turtleneck with a red insignia, "Spartan LLC," with a spear underlining the words. John introduced Sherlock briefly and George immediately asked John if he could speak with him privately.
"Why didn't you phone me?" John asked.
"You know about Monroe?"
John looked at Sherlock, then nodded. "I do."
"Didn't want to phone, then, did I? This is best."
John hesitated then said, "Whatever you need to say, please say it now. In front of both of us. If it's something you can't say in front of Sherlock, you better not say it."
George just nodded as if he already knew this was what John would say.
"I have an offer for you, Crack."
"Call me John. What kind of offer?"
"Come on, John, you know the score. Special Forces are being pulled out. It’s all about private contractors, now. Even Obama is pulling his men out of Afghanistan and selling contracts to the private boys. It's brilliant. Look, I heard about your trouble. Let's just say for the sake of argument that Spartan would be willing to pay for you to replace that wonky shoulder. State of the art. Super rapid healing process, patented; I've seen what they can do. In a month, you'll be back in action."
"I can't make that kind of commitment to Spartan. I won't sign a two year deal."
"What the fuck are you on about. Yesterday you were going to be redeployed and that would have been two more years so don't fuck with old George. But it doesn’t matter, because this deal is no strings attached. No contract."
George looked at John steadily. John didn’t blink.
"What’s the catch?"
"It’s a single mission. They want you and only you, Crack. It’s all about double and even triple threats, these days."
"What's the mission?"
George smirked. "Now that, I’m sure you understand, I can’t discuss in front of your– friend. If you want to do it, call me."
He scribbled something on the back of a business card and handed it to John.
"Short time window. I need your answer in 24 hours. From what I understand you really don't have a choice. I’d hate to see you go down like this. Come with us, it's righteous. Don't wait too long."
He punched John, hard, on his left shoulder and smiled.
John didn't flinch.
"See ya, Crack. Nice to meet you. . .Sherlock Holmes."
He slammed the door but his footsteps were as silent down the stair as they had been coming up.
Sherlock ripped the card from John's hand.
Special Tactical Operations Unit
On the back in bold writing was scrawled a single word:
* * *
Sherlock and John stared at each other.
"Do you know what the Korengal is?" John asked. He couldn’t be sure whether global military operations were necessarily something that Sherlock retained.
Sherlock nodded. Now he was paler, too. "Korengal Valley. Kunar Province. A base for Taliban insurgents. The U.S. failed spectacularly in their campaign to establish control of just part of the Korengal. They withdrew; the U.S. abandoned all bases and outposts in the Korengal just a year ago. It was a clear Taliban victory."
John nodded. "You are right. And it’s not just called the Korengal. Not by the men who served there.
"They call it the Valley of Death."
To be continued . . .
Chapter 3: An Interview With The Spartans.
Sherlock knew what was going to be. Everything was now so clear.
The infinite number of distracting, clamoring, frankly panicked thoughts simply faded away in the face of the power and simplicity of this revelation.
"John, no matter where you go, I'll go, too. It doesn't matter where that is. I don't want to be anywhere on earth, if you aren't there with me."
This was so incredibly obvious that he really expected no argument. The idea that John should actually go away from him, leaving him alone again, was inconceivable.
But John was astonished. It was painfully obvious that the possibility of Sherlock somehow going to Afghanistan, too, never crossed John's mind.
Well, he was used to changing John's mind.
"Sherlock, you and I have been in some very tight spots, but nothing you have ever done is like Afghanistan, let alone like the Korengal. You don't have the faintest idea what you're saying. I could never stand it if I didn't know you were waiting for me, here, safe, in London."
"Safe? Waiting? Are you saying then that you never, when you were in the Army, had soldier for your lover, not knowing if he could be dead tomorrow -- "
John never discussed past lovers, and he wasn't going to start now.
"God Sherlock, do you think for one second what I have with you is anything to what was in my life before? Yes, all right, I've had lovers, sure, and maybe once or twice it was even love, but --but -- what I feel for you, it's real love, it's forever, and I guess it must be more than love. Because I don't have-- there's nothing, no life, if not with you.
"And because of that, I can't let you think of this. Please."
And finally the stony demeanor of the past weeks fell away and John's face had never been so open, the fear and love and need right there for Sherlock to see. But Sherlock wasn't about to give an inch.
"Alone, in London. Alone again. . . what, exactly, about our -- relationship -- leads you to believe I would ever sit by and just wait for you -- while you went into this danger, whatever the reason? Don't you understand anything?"
He held out his palm, the thin scar freshly healed. "Blood brothers. Remember?"
John down looked at his own fresh scar, then at last reached out and pressed Sherlock's palm to his lips. "I just can't let you. And I don't have any way to take you with me. This isn't like the regular Army, a cozy foreign posting where you bring your spouse. This is one of the deadliest conflict zones on the planet."
"And yet, you have been intending to go back, for some time, apparently. You think it's a place for you-- but not me? After everything we've been through? Really, John, not to put too fine a point on it, it wasn't that long ago you had a psychosomatic limp!"
"Sherlock, when I met you, I was just out of hospital. I was in a place, mentally, physically, that I had never been before. My mind was wrecked. My shoulder was wrecked. I felt that I had abandoned my men.
"If I hadn't met you, that day at Barts, would have been on the next transport back that I could. But I stayed. I stayed for you. Now I'm strong again. And getting stronger."
Sherlock pressed this advantage. "So stay for me now."
"I can't abandon Monroe to a court martial. He'll get a life sentence for this. Do you know what that would mean, for a man like that . . .Life, in a military prison."
"All right then, so-- you're going to tell me about Monroe and the court martial. And why you have to go back, all the way. But just understand that if you're going, I'm going."
John groaned. "Christ, Sherlock, you're not a soldier! You haven't been trained for this, there won't be any civilians along for the ride, I assure you."
"Really, John. You think there are no 'civilians' in Afghanistan? Fighting on our side? You must have very little imagination."
"What the -- that's not the point, the point is that I don't want you in Afghanistan, you'll be killed, that's what I've been saying! Bloody hell do--- you ever listen to anyone but yourself?"
"No, John, not really, because practically everyone else talks utter crap, including you. You said you love me too much to think of taking me. Ridiculous. I can't live without you, nor you, me. That's already been established. So if it is that dangerous, as you've made perfectly clear, and which I believe to be true, then I want to be there with you.
"Because believe me when I say, John, if I'm going to die, it's going to be where you are.
"And if you should die, God forbid, then I'll be damned if I'm not there then, too.
"Now. Tell me about this investigation."
* * *
"I was with 3rd Parachute regiment. Well, you knew that. But then we were assigned to a joint unit with the Americans. Monroe was from my own platoon. We were out on reconnaissance, up in the mountains, me, Monroe, Stratton and Carr.
"We got ambushed. The insurgents were dressed like shepherds, civilians. We walked right into them. Monroe was in line to get shot in the face. I jumped out in front of Monroe. The shooter was just a kid, maybe 14, 15 years old. Sick, but you saw it every day. I took it in the shoulder. We kept fighting. After a while I was out. Blood loss. Knicked the artery. When I woke up, I was in the helicopter.
"And then, just a month ago, I heard that they were investigating it as an incident. Monroe was possibly going to come up on charges. There is video, apparently."
"Of what, what video?"
"The boy. He was -- killed."
"Well, he was an insurgent, they started shooting first, his killing would have been permissible, yes?"
"Perhaps. But it wasn't a killing.
"It was an execution."
* * *
"When I found out what was happening, I went to the judge advocates in the London Para base, and I gave a statement. Everything I saw, did and remembered from that day.
"Then I got a note from Monroe's brief. The men that were with us, they seem to be remembering things differently than I do. Monroe didn't want me to call him, because he thought his calls were tapped. Of course. But he asked me to help, to tell the truth. Of course he didn't have to ask.
"I do remember Monroe was the one who put me in a tourniquet, he was the one who helped me get to the helicopter... I could swear the boy, the shooter, was already dead, then."
"Who killed him?"
"I can't tell you that. I've already said too much. Look, I don't want you dragged in, don't you see I've been trying to protect you from all this? It's a world away, it's nothing to do with you."
"Everything to do with you is to do with me."
John finally went into Sherlock's arms then. They held each other tight, before what was coming.
* * *
The Director of Intelligence for Spartan turned on his office lights. It was 4:00 am and he had just got off a plane from Shabaqadr. Eighty paramilitary troops had been killed in a suicide bombing in town on the northwest border with Afghanistan. Two suicide bombers, which the Taliban claimed as the first reprisals against the killing of bin Laden.
He was just sitting down when his intercom buzzed.
"Sir, we have another one."
"What is it this time?"
"The hacker's sending us raw intel, looks like from the cell in Shabaqadr. It's unreal."
"There's no question it's legitimate?"
"None. It's going to blow this wide open. We're going to rock this one out, it's amazing."
"Then get Dennis on it, now. I want a full briefing in one hour."
The Director rubbed his eyes. This was an amazing, if puzzling, gift. What did it mean? He popped a pill that would keep him going another 8 hours or so.
"I'm glad you're able to make use of my little present," Sherlock said as he emerged from behind the open door of the coat closet. The Director went for his gun but Sherlock patted his coat pocket. Next he pressed a button on his desk. Nothing happened. Finally he pushed the intercom, and said, "Ephialtes."
Sherlock held up his mobile. "Jammed." He saw at the Director was preparing to attack him, so he took out the gun and turned it on him.
"All I want to do is talk. After that you can do what you like."
"What I would like I promise will end very badly for you. Who are you."
"My name is Sherlock Holmes."
The Director's face momentarily betrayed surprise.
"Why not just have Mycroft set up an appointment?"
"Because this was better. For my purposes."
"What do you want?"
"I want to join Spartan. I want to go to Afghanistan. Specifically, I want to go to the Korengal."
The Director laughed mirthlessly. "You don't just come to Spartan. We come to you. Do you know the kind of men we recruit? Why would I need you? And why do you want to go?"
"Well, I've just solved your little problem in Shabaqadr. Once you've analyzed it -- and by the way I wouldn't wait long -- you're going to be able to take out the cell that sent out those suicide bombers by the end of the day. The BBC will be reading it out on tonight's news.
"Intelligence. That's what you need, and I can deliver. Computer and human. But I'm given to understand you look for triple threats. I'm also up on explosives, biological weapons, poisons. In terms of weapons, not so much my game -- but guns, knives, I can hold my own. I can brush up on my Krav Maga. Languages, five fluently. Get me in a room with a translator for 72 hours and I can promise you I'll be workmanlike in any dialect.
"If you're wondering if I can really deliver, just think, how did I get in here at all? And why aren't your people here to do something about it?"
There was a knock on the door. Sherlock smiled, wolfen. "Your call." Sherlock put the gun down.
The Director steepled his fingers a minute. Then he clapped his hands, once, and smiled.
"Come in, Armin," he called. A dark-suited operative entered with a stack of files. He noted Sherlock's presence in surprise.
"Sorry, sir, I didn't see a meeting on your agenda," he said.
"Armin, this is Sherlock Holmes. He's joining Intel Team."
"Call Norris in here right now, please."
Armin spoke into a device in his lapel and a blond Nordic-type hulk in standard Spartan insignia turtleneck entered.
"Norris, escort Armin here down to "C". He's terminated. Come back directly to me when it's done. Speak to no one. Use my private elevator--" he gestured to the silver door in the back of the spacious office.
Armin's eyes widened in shock but he didn't try to argue. Norris made him disrobe completely and searched him thoroughly before he hit him with the Taser. Then he bundled him into the elevator as easily as if he had been a rag doll.
* * *
John signed up with Spartan that same day, and immediately underwent shoulder replacement surgery in Spartan's private secure hospital. When John's eyes opened and focused for the first time he saw Sherlock sitting by his bedside, watching with his predatory gaze. He was wearing the Spartan turtleneck.
"God help me," John said. But then he was grinning happily all the same, and it wasn't just the painkillers.
* * *
Six weeks later, John and Sherlock were hanging off the side of a helicopter, looking down into the Korengal Valley.
To be continued. . .
Chapter 4: This Is Why I'm Hot (Deployed Style).
The Korengal Valley is long and narrow, a 6-mile twisting serpent with its head pointed toward the border of Pakistan.
The Korengal Valley has been the safe harbour of smugglers and resistance fighters from time immemorial. Remote, spectacularly rugged, so mountainous that less than ten percent of its inhabitants live on the fertile valley floor. Impossibly tall and ancient pines, formerly the source of now-illicit timber trade, made jagged fingers at the crest of the endless ridgelines.
The Lynx Mark 7 helicopter rose higher and higher before making a dizzying hard bank down, sweeping low along the steeply terraced mountainside fields dotted with stone houses and compounds. Their Spartan pilot, Johnigan, was giving laconic narration, pointing out the outposts and fortifications abandoned by the Americans in April 2010.
"Built on blood," Johnigan said. "Now, the Taliban has taken over most of it. Last year they made a propaganda video for al Jazeera. The villagers demo’ed the rest."
John and Sherlock were tasked for an initial flyover for orientation, and their immediate goal was if possible, to identify the point of origin of heavy rocket fire that had rained down on the tiny village of Tikmal early that morning, killing mostly women and children about their early workaday chores.
The week before, the Taliban had nailed messages to doors in the village, threatening death to those that refused to give up one son of the household to the cause. The Taliban needed fresh recruits.
They were setting up new training camps for Al Qaeda.
* * *
John and Sherlock both scanned the undistinguished mountainside with binoculars and scopes, the passing scenery monotonously rocky. There was no sign of movement below.
The villagers, hearing the passing of the helicopter remained indoors. Fresh rubble, some dark with blood, revealed the morning rocket attack.
Along for the ride were Markham, nickname "Meltdown" or just "Melty," the gunner. Melty manned the mounted .50 calibre machine gun. Melty was also equipped with the latest state of the art holographic retinal sight attached to his helmet, the Q-Sight. If need be, he could use it to assist in firing cannons side-mounted to the Lynx. Also, two Spartan communications specialists.
They were going to establish a new Spartan base near Kamdesh in the north end of the valley. The entire valley was a deathtrap; but the north end, possibly, was the worst. Through the north end of the valley was the funnel to an ancient thoroughfare leading over the border into Pakistan, into the mountainous districts that had long sheltered the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
* * *
"Wait, look –" Sherlock said. "Those rocks, there, two o’clock."
John peered down and Melty locked on target. "No, nothing moving there now," Sherlock said. "But do you see, black traces from the propellant. Fresh."
John shook his head, causing Sherlock to mutter, "You see, but you don’t observe –" and Johnigan lowered the copter momentarily to get a closer look, then started to radio in coordinates as John heard a chillingly familiar whiz and metallic tin-can ping and his adrenaline surged. The Lynx was taking fire.
"Get on that Melty, three o’clock," Johnigan yelled and Melty started jackhammering away, shells showering as the helicopter swerved vertiginously.
"Got it – " Melty shouted as he was suddenly punched back off the gun and hit the floor.
Blood flew everywhere into the cabin.
John leaped onto Melty. The man was spewing blood from his left shoulder and right upper thigh. Melty was shrieking. His helmet visor was completely coated in blood, blinding him. But Melty knew the score; he knew what was happening.
"Doc, quick, tie it off! Tie it off!! Motherfuckers!"
John grabbed two field medical packs. He threw one to Sherlock. It was impossible to tie down opposing limbs in tourniquets at the same time. The very first thing John taught Sherlock about field medicine was how to do this in less than thirty seconds. With both arteries hit Melty could bleed out in less than a minute. John knelt above the wound, pressurizing the artery and Sherlock did the same above the thigh. Bullets whooshed but they ignored them. They whipped the tourniquets on and Melty started to fade out.
More bullets thunked into the cabin and John was closer to the door and so, he was now tying off the tourniquet with one hand and shooting his machine gun out the door, under the gun mount, with the other; Sherlock was bandaging and inserting an IV drip, then dragging Melty away from the door for cover. All of this chaos took place in less than a minute.
The pilot was screaming now and pulling away fast and more bullets were coming from every direction on the ridgelines. "Fuck! Somebody get on that gun NOW," he bellowed.
John was closest so he started rocking it as the helicopter pulled high and fast and they were finally out of range.
* * *
The kits had fentanyl lollipops and John gave one to Melty, who was almost faded out, ghastly pale, but stable. "We need to get him to hospital, now," John shouted.
Johnigan radioed in and they changed course for Forward Operating Base Wright in Asadabad.
"Welcome to the Korengal," Johnigan said.
* * *
After seeing that Melty was safely out of surgery, John was exhausted but satisfied. Melty would make it, both wounds were miraculously clean other than some bone fragments in his femur that would not likely cause permanent impairment.
This was the first surgery he had assisted in since his shoulder replacement and John was modestly reassured with the result. He flexed the shoulder and it felt good; strong, smooth. Spartan really had delivered.
John walked across the camp in the twilight, feeling the buzz as he realized this was the first time his feet had touched Afghan soil since he had been shot himself, all those months ago. It felt like home, and he refused to feel guilty about that. The familiar noises of camp were soothing somehow. Men were walking the other way toward the mess tent, but John wanted to find Sherlock. He felt calm.
They had made it through the first day.
To his surprise, there were several young medics gathered to greet him outside the Spartan assigned barracks. John grinned broadly when he recognized men from his former Para regiment in Helmand. Apparently, word that John was in Asadabad had traveled fast.
The young men gathered in a semicircle.
"Hey, look guys, its Doctor Hotson!!! Hey Hotson, Hottie" they yelled happily, and busted out into a rap, "This Is Why I’m Hot," complete with foolish dance moves as they good naturedly jostled John.
This was an old routine from Helmand, where John was somewhat renowned for his success with the few female soldiers of the base (notably the sole female bomb disposal expert), who took to John’s warmth and quiet magnetism like bees to honey.
The men were simultaneously rapping, dancing and giving John grief about his Spartan badge when the door to the barracks opened and Sherlock came out, biting his lips to suppress a smile.
"Well, Doctor Hotson, aren’t you going to introduce me to your friends?"
to be continued . . .
Chapter 5: Not A Game.
The open, joyous faces of the medics froze momentarily in surprise as Sherlock, tall, pale, and predatory, stepped to their periphery. Sherlock's intensive training regimen with Spartan had put over a stone of hard muscle on him, and he loomed over the younger men like a panther coiled to spring.
He swiftly locked a proprietary hand firmly on John's shoulder. John felt the warmth and tightness of Sherlock's grip through the fabric of his shirt, and smiled.
"Boys, I want you to meet my friend, Sherlock Holmes. I'm afraid it's up to you fine lads to pick up my slack, now. I'm permanently out of circulation." He let his own hand move up to briefly cover Sherlock's own on his shoulder. "And how is Sophie, our Miss Bomb Disposal, then?”
The boys processed this, only one with actual surprise; the others each shook hands in turn with a slightly glowering Sherlock with something like fearful awe; and one hung back, biting his lips and blushing furiously with ill-concealed jealousy.
"Sophie went off with Briscoll – you know, from the officer's mess," said one. John laughed. Greg Briscoll was a Cordon Bleu trained chef who had lost his restaurant in the crash and joined the Army as a lark. For those he chose to favor, Greg could still whip up miraculously delectable feasts from limited ingredients.
"Well God love her, then. Cheers to old Soph," John said.
"Yeah, she's put on a stone since you left, but she wears it well.”
"Hey John, bring your- friend - and let's have a drink. Tom here has some whisky stashed. The good stuff, the Americans gave it to us on the way out," one said, as they were all starting in on the endlessly fascinating topic of Sophie's various delectable parts, to Sherlock's mixed amusement and boredom.
God, was it really going to be like this? Empty-headed youths drooling over mindless, doubtless unskilled sex, food, and booze? Like dimwitted teenagers? How would he endure it? He ground his teeth unconsciously. Sherlock consoled himself with recollecting that this trip to Forward Operating Base (FOB) Wright had been a temporary diversion. Tomorrow, he and John should be well settled in the field, away from FOB Wright and these ridiculous children.
Especially the dark-haired, muscular one that kept devouring John with his eyes. Sherlock was seriously contemplating whether there would be any repercussions if he were to break the boy's neck with one of his quite amusing new Spartan moves.
He saw that John was about to accept, and was steeling himself to pretend to be sociable for an hour or so but was saved by the appearance of George Forsyte, their coordinator from Spartan.
"Watson, Holmes. Meeting. Now," he said with easy tones that nevertheless were clearly an order.
* * *
John said hurried but heartfelt goodbyes to the lads. Sherlock contented himself with a brief nod in the boys' general direction, and a pointed warning stare at the blushing one, who blanched and turned slowly away, trailing the others who had resumed their rousing rendition of “This Is Why I’m Hot.” Sherlock followed George and John into the barracks.
George clapped John on the back.
"John, amazing work today, you too, Holmes. Spartan is very grateful that Melty will be right back in action shortly. He's one of the best gunners we've got."
John nodded good-naturedly, but Sherlock saw a questioning crease between his brows.
"And if I hadn't been able to pull him back together? If Markham hadn't been able to return to duty? I assume Spartan would be equally – grateful?" John asked evenly.
George laughed; a natural, spontaneous-seeming laugh that Sherlock pegged immediately as false. He understood completely that George was neither malicious nor sentimental. It was simply a matter of practical asset management. Sherlock did not disapprove, to the contrary; but he knew well how John would feel if he detected any hint of mercenary considerations where their safety was concerned.
"Of course, John! Of course. Anyway, John, even after Melty went down, you hit two of the shooters today with the Lynx's M3M. That's confirmed. And we nailed the little nest of vipers that hit Tikmal today, Holmes -- your coordinates led us right to their trail. Of course we have satellite on that, but eyes on is often best. Smaller cave complex up the mountain. Tactical Team Mercury took them out an hour ago. So, it's been a good day for Spartan."
"When can we get out of here? What is our assignment?" Sherlock asked. They had been kept in the dark as to their specific mission, other than it involved fighting the reinvigorated Taliban presence in the Korengal.
"Tonight. We don't want to wait till daylight. We are taking you to the north end of the valley. You can make camp there, but that's for show. We want you out on recon, both of you of course. We need to find where the leaders of the new Al Qaeda camp are holed up. We believe they have a substantial weapons cache hidden in the mountains. They've been accumulating it since the Americans left. Either in a compound, or in a cave complex, maybe both. They parcel out the weapons to the camps, and from there the new fighters are shipped out all over the world to fight for Al Qaeda. We have reason to believe that over one third of the Taliban's weapons capacity, guns, rockets, explosives, is hidden in this valley, somewhere.”
"How are they getting something that large into the valley without your seeing it from satellite or drones?"
"Good question. That's what we need you to find out. The forest up high makes visibility hard. Because of the lumber embargo it hasn't been thinned at all for nearly a decade. And the cave complexes are endless, almost unexplored. We know of at least one complex that connects to the border with Pakistan. Anyway, up here, borders are meaningless."
They sat and studied maps of the area, making notes, for over an hour before George said that he had to make sure that everything was ready for their departure and suggested they grab an hour's sleep before they had to go.
"You know the drill, Crack --sleep when you can."
* * *
Finally they were alone, unbelievably, for the first time since before John's surgery six weeks ago.
John and Sherlock stared at each other with undisguised hunger.
Part of keeping them apart had, of course, been deliberate. Spartan was well aware of John and Sherlock's relationship, of course; it had swiftly been decided to view it as an asset more than a liability, so long as the men could usefully be teamed together. Sherlock was found to be so extremely antisocial in his psych tests as to be virtually worthless as a member with any sort of team unit; but his attachment to John was so overpoweringly strong and unshakeable that there was no other arrangement that made sense. As Sherlock's other formidable talents proved to be everything advertised, and far more, the arrangement suited everyone-- except possibly John, who still was secretly prey to constant worry over Sherlock's fundamentally reckless approach to risk. Still, Spartan's world-class training regimen had taught even Sherlock a few things, and John could only hope that impulse control was one of them.
This, however, was not a moment for impulse control.
Their kiss was like an incendiary device detonating, explosive and hot. As John was tearing his uniform off, Sherlock muttered against his neck,
"I never asked -- exactly why do they call you Crack? Surely not drugs."
John pointed his finger, like a gun, between Sherlock's eyes. "From my sergeant in Para training. ‘Crack shot.’ Now shut up, Sherlock.” His mouth was traveling urgently downward.
Sherlock was delighted and grabbed John's finger to lick it. "I'm surprised they didn't make you a sniper."
"Takes more than accuracy to make a sniper,” John muttered as he found the precise spot that he thought would stop Sherlock talking altogether. It worked.
A few minutes later, their uniforms were completely wrecked but they were happily basking in a too-short afterglow, their hunger for each other barely satisfied. But George would be here momentarily.
"Next time I want to fire the M3M,” Sherlock said, giving John’s lower lip a final bite.
John laughed. "All right. But it's not a game, you know."
Ssherlock's eyes were positively glittering with excitement. So far, Afghanistan suited him very well.
"Oh, but it is, " Sherlock said.
John shook his head fondly, but with a shadow of foreboding.
* * *
On the way to the helicopter that would drop them near their camp, John stopped to ask George if he could make a phone call before they left base.
"It's about Monroe," John said.
"I shouldn't worry about Monroe," George said. "Come on, we are behind schedule."
"George, don't mess about, okay – you knew going in what I have to do, what I am going to do. I just need five minutes. I won’t have another chance."
George stopped, calculating. "I didn't want to tell you this."
John became still and his eyes deadly. “Tell me what.”
“John, look, it’s not your fault. Nothing you could have done.”
“Monroe’s dead, John. He’s dead.”
John stood still in the middle of the airfield. “What happened. Tell me, George. What the hell happened?”
George wouldn’t look at John. “He hung himself. In his cell.”
“No!!!” John screamed over the helicopter. “No!! That’s a bloody lie. He would never. He knew I was coming!! When - when did this happen?”
Sherlock put his hand on John to steady him but John paid him no notice, his face contorted with grief and horror.
George looked at him then, and his face reflected genuine pity now.
“A week ago.”
John cried out, “Oh, God, God!!! No! But — he knew, Monroe knew that I was coming, coming for him! A week ago — before we --- before we ever left London. -- ” John was almost hyperventilating with mad grief and dawning fury.
“ — and you knew? You knew all this time, and you let us come here anyway? George? You let me get Sherlock involved in this, bring Sherlock to this cursed place, and you knew, all along, that Monroe was already dead and gone?”
George put his hands on John’s shoulders. “John, we thought it was for the best —“ he said gently.
John cold-cocked him.
Blood sprayed from his nose.
George was laid flat out and cold on the tarmac before he could finish his excuses.
Sherlock grabbed John’s arm before he could do George any more damage.
“He knew . . .they all knew . . .and now it's all for nothing,” John said. “Monroe’s gone, I can't believe he's gone --- and I can’t help him now. I can never help him.”
John was weeping now, tears flowing hotly. He dashed them angrily from his face.
Sherlock grabbed him in hard embrace. “We’ll just see about that, John. We can help him, and we will. We’re getting to the bottom of this before we leave this godforsaken place,” Sherlock swore.
Chapter 6: "Blood In, Blood Out."
George didn't seem to be angry with John. He refused to let him attend to his broken nose, though.
"We're late. Let's forget it. Get in the 'copter Holmes, Watson. Now. We'll --talk ---more later."
John nodded, once but said nothing. They climbed aboard and were off into the darkness, the lights of FOB Wright fading. The were going back into the Korengal.
John was silent the entire journey but Sherlock could sense in him powerful emotion. It started as simple grief, but Sherlock could feel something changing in John. It felt very cold, and hard.
Now Sherlock felt loss, too.
* * *
The helicopter approached Outpost Typhon's field landing area, a tiny clearing surrounded by mountain ridges and cedar forest. Green tracer fire immediately spiked out from dark rocks opposite. As the pilot attempted to get in range to land, there were loud explosions and heavy machine gun fire coming at them. He swerved up and away at the last minute.
"Forsyte, it's a suicide landing! It's like a fishbowl, goddammit. Getting worse every day," the pilot cursed.
"It's all right, Mac," George said. "We'll take the short way. Get us over to that ridge, two o'clock."
Helicopters were the crown jewel prizes for the Taliban and made for excellent news on al Jazeera: faces of the dead crew; and of victorious Taliban, brandishing stolen hi-tech gear.
The pilot circled. He was going to make it look like he was going to try for another landing, to divert the enemy from the men's jump.
"The clearing in the trees, there," George ordered, and he thumbed toward the open door. The men checked each other's parachutes and stood at the brink, prepared to jump.
George punched the button and the green light went on.
"GREEN ON -- GO!!!" He yelled over the din of the 'copter. John and Sherlock's eyes met briefly, adrenaline surging, and they plummeted into darkness.
* * *
A dark parachute jump in rough terrain, carrying battle gear and supplies up to 100 pounds, can easily be fatal.
A nighttime jump, in full gear, is the last of eight test jumps made by the final candidates for the Parachute Regiment. When the 3rd Parachute Regiment was deployed to Helmand in April 2006, the men pleaded with command to be permitted a mass parachute landing, as in Normandy. Paras’ dedication to the power of parachute landing is considered out of all proportion to its practical tactical uses in modern battle.
The idea was dismissed as impractical, almost quaint.
But in the Korengal, where there was almost no square foot of ground that was not looked down upon by enemy positions, getting men in, and out, of the valley was always extremely hazardous. Landing the men by aircraft, or driving them in by vehicle, was not always feasible. Spartan determined that rough terrain parachuting, or "treejumping," was a valuable tool in the arsenal.
* * *
John experienced the familiar feeling of being literally sucked out the door of the helicopter and being rattled and tossed by the wind for a matter of just seconds until the bone-wrenching jerk as his parachute opened. The infernal racket of the helicopter was gone now, replaced by utter silence as he floated on the wind.
He looked down by moonlight to the dark valley below, and saw the outlines of what looked like harmless bushes speeding toward him, but which he knew was a forest of immense cedars. As he was moving into the wind from right to left his heart dropped as he realized he was headed straight for a cluster of trees. He checked the location of the other two parachutes and had just had a fleeting moment to pray that Sherlock’s was heading for the small clearing on the ridge.
He pulled hard right. The wind was too strong. He pressed his legs together and braced himself. With a terrific cracking sound he was violently jerked up, and finally banged his helmet against the trunk of an enormous tree. He was hung up, dangling.
It was too dark to see below. He was almost certain he was too far up to jump down, assuming he could get out of his harness. He grappled the trunk of the tree and felt around. There was a branch just brushing his toes. He decided to assume it would bear his weight. He didn’t want to shine his flashlight for a better look, and his night vision goggles were inaccessible in his pack. But it was urgent that he get out of the tree.
He was literally a sitting target for any enemy that had seen his parachute.
Being ambushed while hung up in trees or wires was every Para’s worst nightmare. He felt for his gun and his knife. If he had to, he would cut himself down.
He punched the release button on one shoulder of his harness and heaved a sigh of relief when it came free. Now he could reach the branch below. He pressed the other release button and carefully unwound himself from the harness. Now he dropped his spare canteen to the ground and from the sound, estimated he was nearly twenty feet up.
John released his pack and it fell with a solid thunk, and he quickly lowered himself down the ropes of his reserve chute, hand over hand.
He dropped the last few feet, landing silently on the balls of his feet.
He had just rebuckled his pack when he heard the signal from George and saw the glint of their helmets approaching. Sherlock took in the scene at a glance and merely cocked an eyebrow. George looked John over carefully.
"Good to go?"
They started the climb to Spartan Outpost Typhon.
* * *
Eerie screams floated all around them in the dark.
They had been warned about the cries of monkeys, but hearing them was still shocking and set off a visceral creeping feeling along the back of their necks. George, trudging steadily in the lead, gave no sign of noticing the human-like shrieks.
Spartan Outpost Typhon was half a mile away and a near vertical climb. They would complete their journey on foot in darkness.
The men had on eighty pounds of body armor, weapons, and gear. John was grateful the burning Afghan summer was over a month away. They climbed, trying for maximum silence, all senses alert. In some places soldiers before them had left ropes to assist the climb.
It took them an hour to haul themselves and their gear up the precarious path. Despite their punishing training with Spartan, their muscles were trembling and their lungs strained to get enough of the thin air.
Finally they arrived at small cluster of structures thrown together from plywood, cedar logs, sandbags, and stone poured into wire baskets, all clinging to a rocky outcropping. This was Spartan Outpost Typhon. George had been whispering into his radio and although there was no light, John felt eyes on them as they entered the perimeter. A door opened and John saw men outlined in dim light.
They went inside, lungs burning and hearts pounding.
* * *
There were five men waiting for them at Outpost Typhon. Radio/communications specialist, translator, three weapons specialists. Other than the radio man, these men were Americans. George was team leader. John and Sherlock were on reconnaissance and intelligence. John would function as medic when in base.
It was dark in the bunker except for the flicker of a laptop propped up on sandbags.
The air was thick with cigarette smoke. George shut the door behind them and they dropped their packs and unbuckled their body armor, winded from the punishing climb.
John didn't like the feeling in the room. He instinctively moved close to Sherlock. George was standing with the others now.
One of them was shirtless, hugely muscled, with a tattoo that said "INFIDEL" across his chest.
"Blood in, blood out, boys," the tattooed one said with a grin.
Without warning George and one of the men jumped Sherlock, pinning him against the wall. The other four swarmed over John before he could reach his gun and started silently and methodically administering a vicious beating. Fists pummeled him from all directions. John yelled and struggled like a caged animal but couldn’t get free and it was all he could do to try and brace himself against the raining blows.
Suddenly he heard Sherlock’s voice shouting "Stop – or he’s dead," and the blows abruptly stopped, although rough hands still pinned him down.
He looked up (one eye already swelling) to see Sherlock holding the tattooed man in a body lock, and saw the gleam of a knife pressed up under his chin. George’s nose was bleeding freely again and he was reeling from a kick to side of his head from Sherlock’s boot.
"Sherlock, Jesus, let him go," John said through his bloodied lips. He could feel Sherlock’s towering fury and knew Sherlock had misunderstood the men. Sherlock had never been in the Army, where battle-deployed soldiers were prone to fighting, wrestling, and administering group beatings as a form of entertainment. "It’s just – an initiation. Everybody gets it. I’m fine." Well, he wasn’t fine, actually; he would be bruised for days and he had a split lip. But he wasn’t letting on.
Sherlock’s eyes widened. "It’s a game?"
John said, "After a manner of speaking, Sherlock. Drop the bloody knife," he said with forced calm.
Sherlock dropped the knife with a flourish, smirking. "In that case, have at it," and the men dove on Sherlock with a vengeance. John forced himself to watch and it was exquisitely painful but brutally necessary. He could not, and would not, try to protect Sherlock from every rough consequence of their decision to come to the Korengal.
After the boys felt they had taught Sherlock his place, they clapped John and Sherlock on the back and handed them each their own bottle of Jack Daniels.
"This is what we call field medicine, Doctor Watson," said the hulk, smiling gently as he wiped John’s blood from his tattoo. Sherlock and John took long pulls of the whiskey, welcoming the burn that soothed their swellings and bruises.
"Damn, he’s a crazy motherfucker, chief," said one of the weapons men, Garfield, known as ‘Cat,’ to Forsyte. The men all chuckled. Sherlock was not one for chuckling but he grimmaced in what he judged to be a correct level of camaraderie.
The translator, whose addiction to his iPod resulted in his kickname ‘I-Tunes,’ or just ‘Tunes,’ said, "Crazy. In L.A., we’d call him a fifty-one-fifty."
"What the fuck is fifty-one-fifty?" Cat asked.
"Involuntary commitment, bro. To the psych ward. Danger to self or others."
The men all cackled, cracking up. Cat gave Sherlock a hard punch to his arm. "5150, that’s you, man. ‘Fifty.’"
The men all pulled on their drinks. "‘Fifty’," they yelled.
Sherlock had a nickname.
George sat silently in a corner, cleaning his gun, watching.
To be continued. . .
Chapter 7: In The Corkscrew.
The next night John, Sherlock and the "Infidel"-tattooed weapons specialist, nickname Castro -- whose real name was Danny Johnson from Galveston, Texas -- were crawling over rocks, peering down into a narrow, deep crevice.
They had received intel from the Prophet that there was a highly placed Taliban leader possibly holed up in a cave complex on this bluff, and there was a small cadre of men embedded in the bluffs on the other side of the mountain probably two miles away as the crow flies. The crevice was thought to be an entrance to a cave complex. The Prophet is the allied covert eavesdropping system on enemy radio communications, translated by Afghan translators. Sherlock was listening on his portable radio gear.
Castro was shaking his head.
"Afghans're runts," he whispered into John's ear. "Half our size; less with the kiddie fighters. But they'll outrun you, outclimb you, too." He squinted down the crack in the rock. "I don't know about this, Doc. Looks very tight."
John nodded but said nothing. In fact he had wanted Van, the other weapons specialist, for just this reason. Although he was able to handle the largest guns, such as the 100-pound, tripod- mounted SAW with ease, Van was small, with a tough, wiry build. Perfect for caving.
But Forsyte ordered him to take beefy Castro: "You're not going all the way in. I just want your sense from this side whether it's in use -- and by whom."
Sherlock waved impatiently for them to shut up. They lay flat against the rocks. Sherlock shook his head.
"I'm not sure I agree with Prophet's translators," he whispered, frowning. "It sounds like. . .they are saying --leaving. Or maybe. . .ending. But reception is almost. . .no, it's gone."
Sherlock's command of the Afghan language was very rudimentary. The Taliban and al Qaeda were polyglot, too; there were Afghan fighters of course, but also Pakistanis, and Arabs of different nations. The local term for Al Qaeda is "Tourist," because its fighters come to Afghanistan from Saudi Arabia, Chechnya, Yemen, Egypt . . .
John made the decision. Their mission was to covertly explore, do a little mapping, and report back. They were equipped with ENVG night vision goggles strapped to their helmets, combining digital enhancement with infrared to enable functionality in total darkness. They double checked their gear and John started down, Sherlock behind, Castro guarding their rear.
The crevice was tight but John judged they could all make it, even Castro. He had seen the floor of the cave from above, there was just a short drop and the floor here was relatively smooth. There were bullet casings on the ground. Sherlock checked for hidden explosives or other booby traps.
There was a tunnel leading into the mountain. Soon they were in total darkness but their goggles gave them black and white, grainy images. If a man were to be hidden here in the dark, the goggles would show them up as yellow. It was like playing a primitive video game.
There were some motorcycle parts scattered here. Motorcycles were a favored mode of transport for Taliban. Sherlock whispered, "Oil," and knelt to touch some drops in the dirt. All was silent.
The tunnel led to a three way branching fork. There was cold wind coming from one of them. John shook his head. "Not that way yet. Wind means it may lead out the other side. Let's check the sides first."
* * *
They started down the left tunnel which abruptly got smaller, narrower. There were fragments of broken lightbulbs in the dirt that crunched under their feet. The tunnel had been electrified. There was a cracked CD which Sherlock carefully retrieved for later analysis.
The tunnel terminated in a series of small hollows hacked into the sides of the cavern. These clearly were makeshift sleeping quarters. There was rubbish here, empty water bottles, cigarette butts, scraps of filthy carpet. Sherlock knelt and examined the bunks.
"Just left," he said, holding up a tiny fragment of bread. It was still fresh. In the arid mountain air, bread grew hard as stone in a matter of hours.
Castro yelped, although quietly, leaping back against the wall and shaking his leg. An enormous pale shape scuttled away with long mincing articulated legs.
"Camel spider. Hate those disgusting crawlies." He shuddered. Camel spiders could be up to 24 centimeters long and could run 16 kilometers per hour. They were aggressive, and would attack and inflict deep tearing bites if pursued or cornered.
John signaled for quiet.
"They have to be here, deeper; or they left down the central tunnel, it must lead to the other side of the mountain," Sherlock whispered.
John felt they had seen enough to confirm the suspicion that the tunnel was being used by Taliban, maybe Tourists. Spartan could call out a bombing run on the cave and block it, anyway. There were no civilians here.
There was a distant rumbling sound. They looked at each other, seeing only helmets and goggles.
"Sounds like rock," Sherlock whispered.
Castro said, "Fuck me, it's collapsing -- let's get out, Doc."
Sherlock waited, listening.
John shook his head. "They are blocking a tunnel." Everything seemed to freeze as they realized that it might be their tunnel being blocked
"It's deeper, not behind," Sherlock whispered finally.
"Lets go," John said, leading them back down the tunnel. John and Sherlock drew their pistols, Castro bringing up the rear, walking sideways, brandishing his suppressed CQBR machine gun.
* * *
They were back at the fork and John led them down the center tunnel, into the cold wind. They flattened themselves against the wall and waited. The wind made a low, mournful whistle.
Finally John gave the signal to move forward. Using the night goggles was somewhat disorienting, like seeing the world through a grainy black and white television, but imperative. They were deep in the caves, now. Without the precious goggles, there was total blackout unless they switched on their lanterns, revealing themselves to any enemy.
Sherlock stopped. They froze. John thought he maybe heard a voice float up the tunnel on the wind but he knew Sherlock's hearing was keenest.
Sherlock whispered in his ear: " They say, 'leave the big -- or maybe the great -- one. Allah will provide.’"
"They heard us, then. Or maybe its something else," John said.
"They will go out the other side, into Pakistan," Castro said. "They'll get away."
"This is recon, it's intel, it's not our concern."
Castro nodded tightly, flexing his powerful shoulders. "You say so Doc."
Suddenly the noise of rumbling was coming from all around, not just ahead. Like thunder. There was a shudder and rock fragments showered down from above.
"They're exploding their own ordinance."
"Go," John said urgently. They went back towards the fork but now the way they had come, the tunnel to the surface, was choked with rubble. Thick dust filled the cave, choking them. They pulled scarves over their faces and backed out.
They could only go back, or try to claw their way out.
John pulled at the rocks but it seemed a job of hours to clear it, while they would be sitting targets. But to go deeper risked trapping them too: the enemy was likely setting off explosive throughout the cave now.
"Are we close enough to the surface? Will the radio work?" John asked. Sherlock fidgeted with it but it was a no go. There were special cave radio units; but they required cabling and were not practical for reconnaissance.
There were sounds coming, footsteps. Then with a chill they perceived glowing yellow movement down the windy tunnel. They opened fire, Castro spraying rounds with the CQBR. Some bullets whizzed past, pinging into the fresh rubble. They hugged the wall. Then there was silence and no more movement.
The yellow shapes were down on the ground now.
Sherlock started creeping towards the fallen bodies. There were four men here, not Afghan. Possibly Egyptians, he thought. He wanted to search them but now there were bullets flying again and he flung himself flat on the ground, taking slight cover behind the bodies. Castro covered him with a burst over his head and he inched back to the others.
John said the obvious: "We're pinned down if we stay here. The north tunnel, now," he ordered, led them off down it.
* * *
They all knew it didn't matter unless this tunnel had an outlet to the surface, too. But here they could at least move.
Until they either found a way out, or made a stand.
This tunnel, though, led slightly down. Not toward the surface. Also it was getting smaller, first Sherlock, then Castro, and finally John had to stoop. They were traveling in a northwesterly direction and John knew this meant the cave was following the length of the mountain.
There were marks in the dirt. Weapons had been stacked here, but it was empty now. Bullets littered the floor. After a bit, the tunnel showed no more signs of use. The earth was rocky and undisturbed. The walls of the tunnel were not carved out by pickaxes here; they were natural, stony.
And crawling with spiders which they grimly ignored although John could hear an occasional sharp kick from Castro.
Now they were kneeling, then crawling.
The tunnel here was no more than four feet high in places and the air was musty and close. They stopped and listened.
The fact that no one was following could mean one of several things. Either their had taken out a small enemy rear party and no one was left; or, the Tourists were waiting for them to get stuck, to be forced to turn around. Or there was some other reason no one was following into this tunnel. Booby trap?
John signaled for everyone to remain quiet and still. After a half hour of no movement or sound, they drank a little water.
John considered their options. He examined the tunnel. He thought he could see outlines of what might be footprints in the rocky floor here but with the goggles fine detail was impossible to distinguish. Then he saw something in the side of the tunnel and went to point for Sherlock to check it out; but Sherlock was already reaching for it. It was a scrap of camouflage canvas, torn from a pack or jacket.
Someone had crawled through here before. There had to have been a reason to do so. These caves were unmapped, tunnels that could lead anywhere. But while they were unknown territory for the allies, the insurgents, the Taliban and now the tourists obviously had been up here for a while. If someone had dragged a pack through this confining tunnel, they could too.
As long as it didn't get much narrower.
John was an experienced caver. While in Helmand, he had temporarily been reassigned to Task Force 575, on a covert mission to follow up on 2003's Operation Mongoose, attacking and clearing caves in North Waziristan. He had been in a number of very challenging spots in the endless honeycombs.
The key was to go slow and never, ever lose your nerve.
Sherlock he was not too worried about, no; no more than the ever-present, gut-wrenching, gnawing worry that he had to steel himself, daily, to endure; but Castro -- Castro seemed a little too keyed up. He hoped they would not have a problem with Castro. Because although this mission was for the cause, John was aware that this was not the Army; Spartans were professionals and as such the element of bonding with your unit, to the death, felt absent to John. Everyone would do what they were supposed to do.
But if it came down to it, he wasn't sure it wouldn't come down to every man for himself.
Himself and Sherlock excepted.
* * *
John's heart leaped a little. There was a sudden whiff of fresher air. But now the tunnel inexplicably plunged down, and they had to get on their bellies. John whispered to roll up their sleeves. Even though sleeves offered protection, they also trapped rocks and sand against your skin, grinding it in against the tough fabric of their shirts. Now the tough decision. He knew the enemy were as a rule much more slightly built than the allies and that they used youths-- even children -- as fighters and mules and worse.
Would the tunnel be passable?
He signaled for Sherlock to stop and wait for him, and Sherlock passed it to Castro.
John would explore a few yards ahead alone.
He unbuckled his pack and shrugged out of it, keeping his canteen; then tied the pack to his ankle. He felt Sherlock give his ankle a parting squeeze. He started inching along. Soon his helmet was scraping the rock and he judged it was no more than eighteen inches high. He paused to make sure he didn't dislodge his precious goggles. Then he steadily shimmied forward. At least the air was fresh, flowing. There was an abrupt twist and now the tunnel was turning sharply, and up. He stopped, and stretched up with his right arm. To go further, he would have to lay his head along his shoulder and push one arm up, dragging the other behind.
His freshly healed shoulder, now strong, still protested a little at the awkward twisting pressure. His hand felt a turning further ahead, and his fingertips felt strong air flowing. Perhaps this corkscrew led to an exit. He saw no change in light yet, though. He thought he could smell a trace of smoke, as though from a recent fire. This was not so good. Possibly the end of the corkscrew led to a secret living chamber for an al Qaeda leader; just the sort of high value target they sought, but likely to have serious firepower protecting him.
And just as he was considering whether they could all safely navigate the corkscrew, he heard what he had most feared. There was gunfire in the tunnel behind.
He unclipped his gun with his free left hand and shimmied back down the corkscrew, shredding the skin of his face and arms. Sherlock dragged his feet out. There was yellow at the far end of the tunnel that expanded as he realized they were shining lanterns into the tunnel. They were hammering away with AK-47s. Local talent, then. Al Queda's serious fighters had much better guns.
But Castro wasn't firing back. John knew then that they were really in for it. They were really in the shit now.
John climbed over Sherlock, firing with his pistol, terrified that Sherlock would be hit too, and quickly checked Castro, slumped against the wall of the tunnel. Through the night goggles Castro's entire face glowed yellow and John realized it was an open bloody crater. He had taken at least one hit straight to the face. But he was gurgling, spitting blood; still conscious and trying to fumble for the CQBR. John started pulling him back up the tunnel but there was no room. Sherlock hammered away with the CQBR and John with his pistol. The yellow at the end of the tunnel melted away as quickly as it had come and all was silent again.
They were either waiting them out, or had withdrawn in the face of their superior firepower. John knew they would come back again in half an hour or so, maybe less. They would just run them out of ammo. Their men were expendable.
If they lost twenty or thirty men to come after them, to take them out; or even more, they would not hesitate to do it.
* * *
John grabbed Sherlock by the shoulders, trying to roughly measure. Two months ago he would not have thought twice about Sherlock's ability to push his way through the corkscrew. Now, he was almost sure he couldn't. But going back was a death warrant.
He had no idea how to get Castro through the corkscrew. But he had to try. He didn't think it would make any difference now; but he wasn't leaving him here to die alone in a black cave. He checked Castro. He wasn't breathing.
He pressed close to Sherlock's ear. He wished he could tear off the goggles and see his beloved face, possibly one last time. Then he refused to go there, locked the impulse up and sternly buried the key. No weakness. No failure. He would lead them out.
"Sherlock, you have to take off your pack now. Keep your water at your belt though. We are going to push through that corkscrew. When it gets tight, reach your right hand up to me and lay down on your side. I will tell you what to do to get you through it. Tie your pack to your ankle now."
"What about Castro?"
"Do what you can for him now. When I get you up, you'll be near the surface. There is an opening there, I know it. The radio will work there, you call in our situation, get MEDEVAC and they can blast us out if they have to. They know where the opening is, it's on Forsyte's map. When you do get up there, I'll go back for Castro."
He could see that Sherlock wanted to argue with John but he just nodded that he understood. Suddenly his dry, sandy lips were on John's for just a moment in the dark, helmets bumping. And then John was crawling back up the corkscrew.
His heart was jackhammering after the firefight. You felt it afterward, never during. It was making him breathe too fast, too hard in the confined space and it quickly threatened to become claustrophobia, a full blown panic attack. He worked on slowing it down. He held his breath and tried to think of something bright, something relaxing. A balcony in Corsica. Waves crashing outside. He became calm and pushed on. The tunnel compresssed his chest and he could not fully bend his legs. Cavers called this kind of impossibly narrow crawl "grabby." It sounded innocuous, but could easily become a deathtrap if you got stuck, especially if you panicked.
He was not going to panic.
When John got to the upward corkscrew turn, he reached up with his right arm and folded his head down against his shoulder, as though swimming. He pushed up with his boots, pulling and shimmying like a snake. Sherlock helped push from behind until he could no longer reach. Rocks cut his face and neck and he could feel, and worse, hear, his breath panting, pushing against the tight wall of the tunnel, right in front of his face. And then he felt a crunch on his helmet. His goggles.
Everything went black.
He paused. In the blackness, suddenly his skin became hypersensitive and he was sure he was crawling with spiders that he had not felt a moment before. He shuddered.
His breathing sounded incredibly loud and he could hear his heartbeat thundering in his ears. But Paras were trained extensively for this too, and after a moment, the rising near panic subsided. He let himself go limp for just a moment, then went by feel up the tightest, hardest turn, completely blind.
If the tunnel did not open a little soon, he wasn't sure this was going to work.
But then it did, suddenly, open up and his fingers could feel smooth flat earth. What would be waiting for him? He reached for his pistol and with a powerful shove of his boots he launched himself up the last few feet, blood lubricating his way along the rock. As soon as his shoulders were free he reached for the lantern on his helmet and hit the beam, then whipped out his gun. His eyes were dazzled.
* * *
He was in a smooth-walled cavern, furnished with cushions, blankets, rugs, a television, radio equipment. There was a smell of food, and smoke. No one was here. But there had been; and they had to have gotten out somewhere. He realized that there was some natural light filtering from the far wall and he gratefully approached it. It was a crevice covered with camouflage netting. Through it he could see the sky. He could not see anyone out there but listened for a few moments.
He went back to the corkscrew and went determinedly back down, headfirst, using his lantern now. When he was near the bottom he could see the top of Sherlock's head. He was administering CPR to Castro. John threw a pebble down and called his name. Sherlock stopped and turned. He was covered with Castro's blood.
John talked him up the corkscrew. It was much slower going for Sherlock. He was much broader than John, bulked up, heavy. His progress was by centimeters, not meters, and John fought to stay calm. Sherlock would sense any uneasiness. But in fact Sherlock's keen perception had already done the rough calculations. He came to a point where there was simply no further room to move. He whispered up,
"John, I can't do it. It's too narrow. I'm going back down, take the radio and call it in. I'll wait below."
"No, they will come back, any minute they will be back. Listen to me. You don't have enough ammo for that. Not alone."
"It's simple geometry. Square peg, round hole and all that. I don't fit."
"If you don't do it they'll kill you. Take off your shirt and pour your water over yourself and try again. That’s an order."
Sherlock handed up the radio equipment first and John laboriously dragged it back up the corkscrew. Sherlock had gotten a little further up, but was still several feet from clearing the final opening. John's calm threatened to crack but as he looked down on Sherlock's helmet below, vulnerable, he steeled himself for what he knew he had to do.
"Sherlock, do as I said, remember; reach up just your right hand toward me. Leave your left hand at your side and lay your head against your right shoulder. It is like you are swimming. I am going to take your right hand and pull you through."
Sherlock did not say anything in response but in a moment his pale hand reached up and John grabbed it.
"Relax as much as you can. I need you to exhale: all air out, completely: Once, then twice, on my mark: One, two, three, go."
He felt Sherlock's movements telegraph up his arm. When he had exhaled fully John gave a mighty pull, hard and steady, on Sherlock's arm, and hauled him up at least a good half-meter. And there he stopped, stuck.
John worked steadily, gently, trying to find a way to twist or turn Sherlock and get him up through the corkscrew. Although he could move him a few centimeters one way or another, he could pull him no further up. He tried dribbling some of his own water down the tunnel and that helped,but not enough. Sherlock was gasping and John realized that his chest was cruelly compressed.
"Sherlock, you have to slow your breathing. You have to relax now. Listen to me. You are almost out."
John’s eyes filled with tears. He knew now what he had to do. He was really going to have to do it. He could not bear it, actually, but it was the only way. There was no other way.
He judged that he needed six centimeters. Sherlock’s shoulders were just that much of an obstacle.
There was a remedy for that. And John was uniquely qualified to employ it.
"Sherlock. I have to do something that is going to hurt you. But you will be all right. I promise you will be all right. I am going to pull up very hard on your arm. Your shoulder is going to dislocate. Do you understand. Then I will be able to pull you through. I – I’m sorry."
Sherlock said, "Do it. Hurry. They’re coming."
John felt a bolt of adrenaline powering him with extraordinary strength and he braced his legs against the wall around the mouth of the corkscrew and yanked mercilessly on Sherlock’s right arm as though to sever it from his body. He heard Sherlock shout, sharply, just once. But although it may have torn, the shoulder it did not fully give. John cursed Spartan and repeated the action, groaning with loathing as he felt the muscles and ligaments tear and give under his hands and heard the percussive pop as the shoulder flew from the joint and then everything was limp, collapsing with that vital extra bit of give. John didn’t stop but kept pulling violently until Sherlock’s head was through and still he kept yanking, seeing Sherlock’s skin ghastly white and clammy, then slipping his hand under the compressed armpit of the left arm now, the cords of his neck bulging from the strain as Sherlock’s left shoulder finally, reluctantly pulled through, shredded and bleeding. And then he was laid out on the floor of the cave, gasping for air, his shoulder hanging crookedly awry.
Without giving Sherlock a chance to catch his breath John put his bandana in Sherlock’s mouth to bite and maneuvered Sherlock into position and brutally popped the dislocated shoulder into place. Sherlock’s face was covered with cold beads of sweat and he had no more color in his face than a corpse. He groaned a just little into the bandana when the joint popped into place, but otherwise bore it stoically. But now the shoulder was back in place. John took his bandana and tied it into a sling. He untied Sherlock’s pack from his ankle. Thankfully he had strapped the CQBR to the pack and John grabbed it now, ready.
"Sherlock, you have to radio Spartan. Look, there’s the entrance." He pointed to the sunlight filtering through the camouflage netting. Sherlock went to the radio and began muttering into it urgently, giving Spartan their coordinates and asking for a MEDEVAC for Castro. Sherlock thought he still might be alive, but he could not be sure.
"I’m going back for Castro now. Stay put."
"NO! John. No. You can’t do for him what you did for me. He’s dead weight. He’s possibly twice my size. It’s impossible. Wait for help."
John hesitated at the mouth of the corkscrew. He imagined the breadth of Castro’s shoulders, his massive dead weight, the cavern where his face used to be. He knew it was no use. If he had some explosive, he could try and blast the corkscrew wide but that would likely harm Castro down below. He heard Sherlock explaining this over the wire.
"They are coming. Mac is bringing the Lynx and the Apaches are coming to clean up."
They carefully parted the netting from the cave entrance and climbed out slowly into the sunlight, guns steady. They had been in the cave for eight hours. It felt like less than an hour; it felt like a lifetime.
Suddenly Sherlock pointed below. There was a flash of movement in the brush and they had time only to fling themselves down below a boulder when machine gun fire strafed them, rock chips and dirt flying around them.
John held up his finger. There was just one shooter. Sherlock covered him and John waited until he heard the unmistakable sound of reloading. And he stepped out sideways from behind the boulder just long enough to see the tall, ascetic turbaned figure among the rocks and thorny holly trees. He was wearing American body armour. John felt the perfect moment of almost serenity as the gun and his arm became one, as he aimed unerringly at the man’s upper shoulder, right where the armour left a vulnerable gap.
There was an explosion of blood and the AK-47 flew from the man’s hand and he punched back, staggered and rolled down the side of the mountain.
There was a droning and then thunder as the helicopters cleared the ridge.
To be continued. . .
Chapter 8: Damn The Valley.
The return of John and Sherlock to Outpost Typhon without Castro was met with howls of grief and rage from Cat, his closest friend; and distrustful silence froth the others. There were mutters of the universal curse of Korengal soldiers: "Damn the Valley."
Van, the third weapons specialist, burst out finally, "Guess you showed Castro after all, eh, Fifty?"
The air in the room suddenly felt hot and dangerous. Sherlock shook his head, disgusted at this obvious stupidity. He was still covered with blood from trying to save Castro in the cave.
John, boiling with pent-up aggression from the day's battles, the cave ordeal, Sherlock's near-entrapment, and grief at the loss of Monroe, and now Castro, lunged across the room, eye to eye with Van, fists clenched.
"He almost got killed himself -- giving Castro CPR. Alone. In a meter-high tunnel under Taliban fire. Castro getting killed is down to my call. I led us down that tunnel. So anything you have to say you can say to me, not him," he shouted.
George sprang forward and separated John and Van before they tore into each other.
"Watson, Van, Cat -- they extracted Castro. He might not make it -- but as of right now, he's still alive."
The atmosphere changed in the blink of an eye. The news was met by whoops and crushing hugs all around, and the men awkwardly thumped John on the back. Sherlock accepted a few punches on his good arm.
Sherlock calmly rummaged in his pack and brought forth the CD he had picked up in the cave. He slid it into the laptop and started to work.
"Hey, Fifty," Tunes asked, "what the fuck's up with your shoulder?"
Sherlock didn't look up from his work on the damaged disk. "In the end, my shoulders were bigger than the tunnel."
"So Doctor Watson kindly removed the joint from its socket for me. Much more --flexible-- that way."
There was stunned silence at this, as the boys processed what must have gone down.
George interrupted. "Holmes -- I need you back to FOB Wright."
Sherlock snorted scornfully. "My shoulder is fine." He paid no notice to the huge bloody cuts and gouges on his face, arms and torso from being dragged over the sharp rocks of the corkscrew.
"No. The man Watson shot on the mountain. We captured him alive. I need you back at Wright. You can assist in the interrogation. You have knowledge from the caves, you can be an asset. We think he is on the Critical Target List."
Sherlock nodded and started gathering his things.
"Hang on a bit, Forsyte. How do you expect Holmes to get down to the landing field? His shoulder's dislocated." John was forcing Sherlock to sit still for a new sling to bind his shoulder, and was cleaning out the worst of his gouges, patiently removing grit and gravel. Sherlock was trying to work on the laptop at the same time.
"He won't need his gear. No one goes alone. Cat and Tunes will cover him down the trail. If he's not fit they'll help."
Cat snarled at this.
Sherlock stood up abruptly, shoving John roughly away. The men watched with obvious curiosity to see what Fifty would do.
"I'm perfectly fit. I can get down with one arm. I certainly don't need a nanny. But I'll take one of these," Sherlock grabbed the CQBR and hefted it with his left hand.
John kept his face impassive and turned away. He attended to his own gun, taking it apart methodically. He realized that he felt . . .hurt. John saw that Sherlock was becoming more like them. Like a real soldier. Hard.
Well, what did he expect? Sherlock had seen trouble now, since they came to the Korengal. The Valley of Death. Today's firefight and escape from the cave was about as rough as it got. He had to admit that Sherlock, inexperienced in 'real' combat though he was, had performed admirably: cool under pressure, fearless with his weapons. He was even proud of Sherlock. What do you want, he lectured himself sternly, that Sherlock should be vulnerable? Ridiculous. All that mattered was getting back home alive.
Which was starting to look improbable.
George said, "I have new orders for Watson, too."
"You're not sending him back to the caves, Forsyte." Sherlock said. It was not a question. It was a warning. He stared coolly at Forsyte.
"No. The compound northeast of the cave. We're going later tonight. Recon. All of us."
"I'll go, too," Sherlock said fiercely. "We're already down one man with Castro out. From what I saw in the caves, they may well have hauled all their ammo up to the compound. It'll be a massacre. It's sheer idiocy. Don't send me away, back to Wright."
Forsyte was silent a moment and the men tensed. A few were nodding their heads in agreement. Sherlock was close to insubordination. John bit his tongue, forcing himself not to interfere. He badly wanted Sherlock back at the base, out of harm's way. But Sherlock had different ideas.
And he was using the word, "we."
Fifty was part of the unit now.
* * *
Suddenly the laptop was making fuzzy noises and Sherlock was completely focused on it, Forsyte, the men, forgotten. He might have been in 221b. After a moment, the screen flashed with moving images. It was grainy video. Forsyte stopped to look, John looked over their shoulders.
It was a group of turbaned Afghan men, seated in a square around a patterned rug with tall brass coffee servers and trays of sweets. There was tinny, shrill Arab music. Then the camera zoomed in. There were some slender figures seated behind the men in gorgeous, jewel-toned silk shalwar kameez. One rose and began a sinuous, suggestive dance. The men clapped to the music, their eyes shining with desire as they followed the dancer, whose wrists and ankles were encircled with tinkling bells. Some of the men tossed paper money at the dancer's feet. The camera zoomed in closer. The dancer was smiling provocatively, with bold eyes.
The dancer was a boy.
No older than twelve.
John groaned in disgust and Sherlock pounded his fist. "Foul bastards," he cursed.
John had seen this sort of thing before. The Afghan translators would have such videos and shyly watch them when they could. With women heavily sequestered, unable to look at or speak to a man on pain of honor killing until the day she spoke her wedding vows, some powerful Afghan men's proclivities went to victimizing young boys. Bacha bazi, "boy play," it was called. The Taliban forbade the practice, especially rampant in the northern provinces, but warlords, wealthy merchants and drug dealers were addicted to bacha bazi, and openly competed to have the most beautiful boy. The youths were taken from their households as young as age nine, trained in dancing, music and "seduction." The boy of a wealthy man was treated with the attentions of a pampered mistress; clothes, jewelry, pop music, toys. And abused for the pleasure of adult men. A poor family that resisted giving up a chosen son risked grave reprisals. In a tribal society, no one wanted to be shunned, or worse. Better to earn money from the boy.
Boys that did not cooperate, who tried to escape the system, disappeared. Or turned up dead.
George pointed to a man seated near the front of the circle, on cushions, watching the dancer with apparent ennui. "That looks like Tariq Khan. Powerful northern warlord. And some of these men are Pakistani. This party was at a war summit."
John felt nauseous and was looking away when something caught his eye. The face of a dancer rising now to take his turn. His face was grim; eyes, haunted: but as he stepped forward onto the carpet and began to stamp his feet to the music, a horrible, practiced simper transformed his face. He began to twirl.
"Stop! There!" John said. Sherlock stopped the video, catching the boy in a graceful spin with his face toward the camera. John looked closer.
"Oh my God. It's him."
Sherlock turned, hearing John's shock, not understanding. "John, what is it? Who do you see?"
"That boy. The dancer. He's the one that shot me. In North Waiziristan. I know it."
"Do you mean. . ."
John nodded slowly. "The one Monroe is supposed to have killed."
"Executed," George said. "Anyway, you can't be sure. He's just a kid. They all look alike, these boys."
John did not appear to be listening. He reached out and touched the screen with his fingertip and turned away.
"You're wrong. I'd know those eyes anywhere," John said sadly.
* * *
Sherlock said, "I'll go to FOB Wright. Let's see what he has to say. Possibly you can wait to hit the compound. Until I have a chance to question him."
"It's a coordinated mission. Everything is set. We know what we need to know. And that, Holmes, is all you need to know. Now you need to leave in thirty to head down that trail. Eat something, hydrate. Mac's coming. Cat, Tunes, cover him and get back here double-time."
Everyone started gearing up. John pulled Sherlock behind a stack of MRE cartons.
"Sherlock. I don't know why Forsyte is doing this. It doesn't feel right. Just watch your back. And when you get into base, get to hospital and see to that shoulder. . . .That video of the boy. It means something. Why was it here, in the cave?"
"All right. It's all right. John, I can handle myself. It's you that needs to watch your back. I don't like it. I want to go with you. But maybe, at least, I can find something out about the boy. About Monroe's case."
"Remember what you said. Back at the flat."
They both remembered. That if either of them were to die, the other would be there.
They looked at each other and John saw exhaustion in Sherlock's eyes. The side of his face was covered with raw wounds from the cave. But if he knew anything about Sherlock, it was that his endurance would carry him through. He wanted to hold him. They had sworn not to do so when with their unit. He contented himself with squeezing his good shoulder, hard.
"So come back to me," Sherlock whispered.
Sherlock quickly burned a copy of the bacha bazi video and surreptitiously did some hacking into the Judge Advocate's system, which was ludicrously easy.
Monroe had been held in the brig at Bagram Airfield, where British forces were stationed at the US-operated facility as part of joint coalition operations. His court martial had been scheduled to take place there. Before he made a court martial redundant by hanging himself in his cell.
He downloaded what he could and snapped the laptop shut. Then he retrieved fresh ammo clips and tightened his sling. His shoulder was on fire. John had given him some tablets for the pain and he took them now. He had a very high pain tolerance but he didn't need the distraction while he climbed back down the steep trail to the landing field.
With a final nod at John, who though outwardly composed looked stricken with loss to Sherlock's eyes, he headed out. Yes, he could still read every expression on John's face. That hadn't changed. That will never change, he swore to himself.
Cat took point and Van the rear. The climb down was a bit easier without eighty pounds of gear strapped to his body. But the trail was near-vertical and his right arm strapped into the sling threw him off balance. He fell hard more than a few times. He refused any help and Van respectfully did not try again after his first offer.
"Try not to get killed tripping on a rock, Fifty," Cat said sarcastically. Sherlock ignored his provocation. He could not imagine what he must be feeling, knowing Castro was hovering between life and death, his face blown to pieces. Cat didn't say anything else.
Their senses were alert. After today's battle in the caves, the enemy could well be planning a counter-strike on Outpost Typhon.
But they achieved the landing field without incident. Mac hovered down and Sherlock ran into the copter.
"Good luck tonight, Cat, Van," he shouted to them as it lifted off.
Their hands waved farewell and he thought he heard Cat yell after him,
"Damn the Valley!"
To be continued . . .
Chapter 9: The Seeing Eye.
Sherlock had been told by Tunes on the way down the trail to try and sleep on the helicopter. Sleep whenever you can, he had said.
Sherlock didn’t even try. The helicopter was loud, and fast, and the passing terrain below was still fascinating and new. He tried to look down and find the compound John and the men would be marching on tonight but everything went too fast.
His shoulder throbbed insistently and he told himself that this was another way he was secretly closer to John. He wished that the dislocated shoulder could somehow produce a scar, so they would both have scars on their shoulders. He looked down and flexed the scar on his palm and it made him feel the bond with John, no matter that he was flying away from him now. Just a few days in Afghanistan, and Sherlock felt very different from the man who walked into Spartan’s offices.
Nearly four years, that was how long John had been in Afghanistan; before he got shot by the mysterious bacha bazi boy. Sherlock tried to imagine what that meant, what it must have felt like to have lived each one of those days, as John had done. Only now did he have the faintest idea what it meant, or what it might mean; and only now could he admit to himself that after what he had seen in these few days, that he likely never really would.
Sherlock replayed in his mind certain arrogant assumptions, certain manipulations that he had employed with John, based upon what he confidently had thought he had deduced about John’s experiences, about who John was as a man, as a soldier: A soldier with post-traumatic stress disorder and a psychosomatic limp.
He knew now that he had been as mistaken as it was possible for a person to be.
John’s gentle but proud refusal to either be defined by those assumptions, or to try and correct them, only now took Sherlock’s breath away.
He closed his eyes, but did not sleep.
His fingertips caressed the scar.
* * *
The men of Spartan Outpost Typhon were quietly filing out of the bunkers and efficiently making their way down the trail. George hung briefly behind to take a call on his global satellite mobile phone.
"I can’t talk long, sir. We’re heading out. It’s time for the rendezvous."
"What about Holmes?"
"I sent him to Wright. Like you said."
"And everything is . . . arranged?"
"Sir, he’s in Typhon recon group, with us, tonight."
"Well . . . you know what to do."
The line went dead and George pulled his pack on and headed off down the trail.
* * *
The helicopter landed at FOB Wright after a mere half-hour’s journey. Lynx helicopters held the world speed record, and this one was traveling light; just one passenger, no cargo. Sherlock said to Mac, urgently: "Mac, wait for me. If they can’t let the prisoner out of hospital, you can take me back to Outpost Typhon. I don’t want to waste precious time on base."
"Not a fobbit, Fifty?" ‘Fobbit’ was the scornful term battle-deployed soldiers in the Korengal and elsewhere used for base-bound pencil pushers and other non-combat personnel, living in perpetual comfort and security on Forward Operating Bases throughout Afghanistan and Iraq.
"Mac, just wait – two hours. If you can. I will know by then whether or not the prisoner’s fit to be interrogated."
Mac looked at him somewhat pityingly. "If you think they’ll wait till he’s fit, well . . ."
Sherlock frowned. "Just wait. Two hours. Forsyte and the men are already on their way to the compound. Unless you get another call, just wait for me."
Mac nodded. He understood. He couldn’t stand more than a few hours himself in fobbit land.
"You got it, Fifty. Two hours. Unless I get called out."
Sherlock shook his hand. "Thanks, Mac."
It took Sherlock a few minutes to find the hospital. FOB Wright was becoming an established base and there were hundreds of sleek, well fed officers and soldiers milling around without an apparent care in the world. Sherlock tramped through the camp with his torn face and sling with the dust of battle still clinging to him and people instinctively gave him wide berth.
When Sherlock found the hospital he found someone apparently in charge and asked for the prisoner. He didn’t know the prisoner’s name, but apparently Sherlock was expected. A man from Spartan, tall (were they all tall?), exceedingly fit, with black hair and blue eyes. Sherlock pegged him as former IRA. The Spartan man escorted him to a separate bunker.
"Where are we going? Why is this man not in hospital? He’s been shot, I was there when it happened."
"We know. It’s a security risk to keep him with the soldiers and civilian wounded. We have a separate sick bay for detainees."
Sherlock nodded. At the end of the bunker there was a room with a closed door and another Spartan man standing guard outside. The Spartan man opened it.
A thin, bearded man was lying on a stretcher, his shoulder bound with bloody bandages. He was hooked to an IV. Sherlock recognized him as the man John had shot on the mountain. There was a male nurse here and a young Afghan man with a clipboard.
"This is your translator, Ahmed. Ahmed, this is Mr. Holmes. He will be conducting the interrogation."
The Spartan man flipped a switch that Sherlock presumed went to a remote audio and video feed.
Sherlock said, "I need a laptop."
The Spartan man said, "We make our own record."
Sherlock said it again, slower this time. "I. Need. A. Laptop. Are you in Intel Team?"
The Spartan man grinned and shook his head. "Security."
"Well, then I presume that is why you fail to understand that I need my own materials and I need to make my own notes and with this arm in a sling I am sure you can appreciate that I won’t be taking notes with a pen." He gave him the full, sneering, arrogant Sherlock treatment.
"If you can’t use your right hand, how will you use a laptop?" The Spartan man sneered back.
"I am perfectly able to type with my left hand, but not write. Now. The longer you hold me up the longer this will take and I’m afraid our man here isn’t looking too keen."
Sherlock waited as the Spartan man went into a nearby room and came back with a laptop.
"We keep it when you’re done," he deadpanned.
Sherlock nodded impatiently.
Sherlock sat next to the translator. The injured prisoner was awake and apparently under the influence of painkillers. He wore a beatific smile.
"Who are you?"
"I was there at the caves. I saw you get shot. You’re lucky to be alive, you know. If our soldiers hadn’t pulled you off the mountain you’d be dead now."
The man nodded. "Sons of dogs. I would be a martyr in paradise now." He spat elaborately in Sherlock’s direction, but succeeded only in dribbling on his beard.
The Spartan man made a gesture that expressed how much he would like to assist the prisoner to find paradise.
"All right. Let’s forget about gratitude. Let’s talk about paradise, then."
The Spartan man’s impassive face betrayed a touch of surprise. Sherlock pulled out the burned disc and put it in the laptop. He brought it close to the prisoner’s face. The tinny music played.
"Who is this boy?"
The prisoner’s face lit up. "Ah, paradise, paradise indeed. That is Mahmoud. Beautiful Mahmoud, proud Mahmoud. Sad Mahmoud."
The prisoner began singing some song of love, love of a man for a beautiful mountain boy who stole his heart.
The translator was blushing now and did not want to render the words into English. But Sherlock made clear with a few choice words that he understood most of it, anyway.
"Who is Mahmoud’s master? Where is Mahmoud now?"
The prisoner frowned. "I cannot tell."
"My friend, you could have died today. Allah did not will it. You are a prisoner of the English and the Americans. That is Allah’s will, yes?" Sherlock used the universal expression, "In’shallah," the fatal expression that conveyed Allah’s hand behind every move on the human chessboard.
"If you help us, we can help you. If not, well, nothing is easy." It was no different, really, than the speech Lestrade might give a criminal in London, trying to break a case. Except that he was afraid that if his questioning did not obtain results, the man from Spartan was likely going to take things to another level altogether.
The prisoner shook his head. He would say no more.
Sherlock studied him closely.
"You don’t belong here, my friend. This is not your fight. What did they do to make you leave your farm? You are a farmer, not a fighter. You have a . . .wheat farm. In the valley. You are honored, respected. You have never turned your fields to poppies. Your women are skillful, they are . . .weavers. They care for you, love you, honor you. You have a young son, he is just learning to write.
"But your son may not see his father again. If you help us, things may be different. You have been given this choice. That is the will of Allah, not death on the mountain far from your own fields."
The man had tears in his eyes and he held his hands up as if to supplicate the heavens.
"You are wise, you have the seeing eye. All that you say is true."
"Who owned Mahmoud? What happened to Mahmoud?"
The man trembled and hid his face in his hands.
"Believe me when I tell you that this can happen even to your own son. This boy," he pointed to the screen – "is someone’s son. Help us."
The man cringed.
"Mahmoud – he is dead."
Sherlock nodded. Perhaps John was right. Maybe this boy was the one that was killed. The one Monroe was supposed to have killed.
"How do you know he is dead? What happened to Mahmoud?"
"It was more than one year ago. Mahmoud was becoming of the age of a man. He was proud. He no longer wanted to dance, no longer wanted to be a bacha bazi boy. He begged his master to let him go, or let him fight in the wars. He wanted to . . . find honor."
"And what happened then?"
Sherlock held his breath. The prisoner did not want to continue but under Sherlock’s piercing gaze he faltered, then continued.
"Mamoud’s master would not let him go. He said that when he became the age of a man, he would be the minder for the master’s new boy."
"How do you know this?"
"Mahmoud’s master . . . is of my tribe. Of my district. He is a powerful warlord. I can say no more."
"Let me tell you what I believe, what I see with my – seeing eye. Mahmoud was able to escape, someone helped him get away. And he joined the Taliban, as a fighter in the mountains, over the border he went, yes? Into Pakistan, into North Waiziristan?"
The prisoner nodded miserably. Yes, Sherlock was right.
"And the boy became a fighter in the wars with the West, yes? And he died . . . .in battle?"
Again miserable nodding.
Sherlock touched the man’s arm gently. "Then he found honor, in the end," Sherlock said.
The man shook his head. "Not so. He was . . .desecrated. His spirit has no rest."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean that he can never find paradise."
"Why ever not? What happened to Mahmoud?"
The man tried to draw closer to Sherlock, but could not with his wounded shoulder. Sherlock bent over, close to the man’s lips. The prisoner whispered in his ear. The hairs of his beard scraped Sherlock’s neck.
"He was beheaded. And they sent his head back, back to his master."
to be continued . . .
Chapter 10: Pink Mist.
John trudged down the trail. It was close to midnight.
He was following Tunes, George behind. All of the men wore nighttime camouflage, their faces blackened. As he trudged, John was ruminating darkly over Monroe's suicide, the image of his strong body swaying limply from -- a tied sheet? – dominating his thoughts. He burned to understand Monroe's death. It was all completely mad: the accusations against Monroe were impossible to believe.
That Monroe should have lost his courage in the face of the court martial John refused in his heart to accept. He had stood shoulder to shoulder with Monroe in many a tight spot, not to speak of their personal bond which to this day John held close in his heart. Something he had never, ever discussed with Sherlock; and never would.
John knew Monroe would never take a coward's way out, he would have defended his honor to the end. And that left the very obvious question: how, exactly, did it come to pass, then, that Monroe was found hanging dead in his cell? Perhaps everyone else would believe this; but no one knew Monroe like John did, and John knew without the slightest insight into the actual "facts" or "evidence," that Monroe never killed himself at all.
Now John could no longer avoid the images that he so often repressed and he let them flow. These were the last moments: when he was shot, the end of Afghanistan for him. Just over a year ago. It seemed a lifetime, and more. He, Monroe, Stratton, and Carr were clearing a small branch of a vast cave complex in the district of North Waiziristan. It was a joint coalition operation. In his battle group were soldiers and "contractors" from America, Britain, assorted other Western countries, and Afghan National Army forces.
The district was under the rule of Pakistan, but one quickly understood on the ground that in these remote mountains, borders -- imposed largely by foreign powers -- had no meaning at all. There were tribes here who spoke languages still unknown to the outside world; some valleys had converted to Islam just over 100 years ago, and they fought with the militant fury of the fanatical convert. These proud mountains were the Hindu Kush, and even the army of Alexander the Great had been humbled by their remorseless, harsh grandeur.
* * *
They had been emerging from a cave, John, Monroe, Stratton and Carr, shaken and blinking in the bright sunlight, having fought their way through a clutch of hidden Taliban soldiers. They were attempting to rejoin the rest of their unit when a small group of allied fighters approached from behind some nearby boulders, distracting John. It was at that precise moment that they were ambushed.
Enemy fighters had been lying in wait, flat on the ground, covered with brush. John had time just to glimpse a young boy of no more than fifteen, surprisingly well-fed and soft-looking except for his green eyes; haunted eyes, with death in them. The boy whipped his rifle up as he sprang from under the branches and John judged he was less than 8 meters away.
In the slow motion time that seemed to always envelop these memories, John could see the barrel of the boy's rifle, trace what the trajectory of the bullet would fly, see that Monroe, slightly in front of John, was surprised, caught unawares, and that the boy's shot would strike Monroe straight in the head. John threw his arm out in front of Monroe and leaped sideways, firing his pistol as the boy's rifle went off and he saw the boy stagger back, blood spraying and the rifle flying from his hand, his eyes wide, wondering. John felt hot blood spraying his own neck and fire in his left shoulder.
He got off a few more shots of his pistol, slowly sinking into the rocky dirt, and then somebody was dragging him away and all John could see was blue sky while bullets flew all around. He heard the welcome thunder of helicopters.
Everything was getting dark now, though; he could not feel his arm.
Monroe's face was hovering near his own, tugging on a tourniquet. John thought Monroe say, voice distant and small:
"Don't you dare die on me now, John Watson. Do you hear me? Don't you fucking dare," and everything went black.
John had reminded George that he was to be allowed 24 hours' leave to go to Bagram Airfield. He had told George that he had promised Monroe's family he would recover his effects, find out what he could. "George --- you know I need to do this," he had said.
"It shouldn't be a problem," George had replied. "Soon as we wrap up the op on the nightclub, you can head out."
* * *
The Spartan men were now hiking several miles to a forested ridge that overlooked the compound, code named "the nightclub" for the op because of the strangely festive string of colored lights that drooped over a stone verandah on the side of the main house. They weren't always on, but John presumed that when they were, it meant something.
The Prophet was quiet; there had been radio silence in the valley since the attack on the caves. This was not necessarily good news; over and over it had been proven that the enemy was more than capable of coordinating fighters in the mountains without using radio or cell phone communications.
The night was very cold at this altitude and John was grateful. His body armor was incredibly hot and he was perspiring freely. Suddenly a ghostly howling drifted over the mountain, piercing but mercifully distant.
Tunes had told John that four men in a nearby village had been devoured by wolves. The wolves were ravaged by hunger. Although the howling did not sound close, the men instinctively drew closer together. They continued on in the darkness, feeling as though eyes watched them through the gentle rustling of the trees, but they heard nothing more.
"The nightclub" precariously clung to the terraced side of the mountain. They were now high above it. It was likely that there were enemy watchers up here too; as always, the men were playing a deadly game of cat and mouse. If they could confirm that the compound was a base for enemy fighters, not civilians, they would call in a strike.
George gave John a sniper rifle and told him to follow. The rest of the men fanned slowly down through the thorny brush and rocks, surrounding the compound.
It took the better part of an hour for everyone to get into position. John selected an ideal vantage point screened behind stunted holly trees and a boulder, but George shook his head and led him down the slope where they crouched behind a collapsing stone wall, directly overlooking the colored lights. They were on. John settled down behind the rifle, gazing steadily through the scope, tense but ready.
Through his scope John could see moving shapes outlined in the windows. All of the windows were tightly shuttered; and although he could see shapes outlined through the filtered, dim light behind the shutters, theoretically under the rules of engagement, they were supposed to presume they were civilians. Right, John thought with aggravation. An innocent farm family manning each of the windows at midnight. And as though someone were reading his thoughts, all lights inside the compound went out, all at once. George was whispering into his radio.
"Let's get down there," George said abruptly.
John was surprised. They were perfectly placed for reconnaissance and going closer risked needless exposure. But he didn't argue. They crept down the slope, inch by inch, and he prayed that no one in the compound was watching their position. After a few minutes, though, suddenly he saw tracer fire exploding from the windows of the compound and realized they were blown. John saw somebody climbing up on the roof with a rocket launcher and John exhaled and gently squeezed the trigger, saw with satisfaction the man crumple to the ground. But there were two more right behind him, and then ten, and John was firing as fast as he could, what he called arcade-style. He didn't miss.
George was rocking his gun too, but now there were just too many. John saw tracer rounds racing toward them, exploding rock and dirt all around him, leaving glowing phosphorous in the dirt. There was a shooter across the dark slope from them, hidden and far too close. "Fuck," he swore, wishing ardently for the cover of the collapsed wall. They were pinned in an untenable position now.
"George, back up there, to the wall!" He yelled over the explosions.
George shook his head and pointed down. Into the compound. He had given orders for the men to converge on the compound.
"Are you fucking mad! Wait for the strike unit, let's fall back, we can hold them off till they get here," John shouted, but George was already heading down the hill. "Fuck," John swore again as he covered George and they scrambled toward the rear of the nightclub.
Now he heard huge explosions on the other side of the compound and he knew that Cat was firing rockets from the mountainside. Grenades were being lobbed. There were screams coming from all around the compound and a bearded man fell through the broken shutters right in front of him, slumped over the windowsill, his brains and blood leaking into the dirt. But John could hear the screams of women and children now, running his blood cold. It was that more than anything that made him follow George, who was beckoning him. Time to get inside.
George signaled for John to take point. John pulled out his M4 and with a quick check through the window to make sure no civilians were in his line of sight, he started hammering it through the window. There was no responding fire. John leaped over the windowsill, George close behind.
* * *
Now they were inside the low-ceilinged stone compound, debris and dead bodies and smoke. He could hear firefights, explosions and screaming everywhere. Chaos. George seemed to know where he was going, though, and he waved John down a narrow hallway, then had to immediately fall back from answering gunfire. George signaled and he took high point and John low, and they alternated shots into the hallway until the shooting abruptly stopped. George looked quickly around the corner and nodded. Whoever had been back there was down now.
They crept down the dark, very narrow stone passage that terminated at small carpet that had been pushed aside to reveal a wooden trap door. It was closed and slick with fresh, wet blood.
There were two bodies here, dead men, AK-47s in their hands. John looked at George. He shook his head negative.
John was definitely not going down wherever that door led.
"George, no way. We hold it until strike unit gets here. We aren't equipped, it could be fucking booby-trapped, bombs, mines. There could be a hundred men down there. Leave it be."
George had a strange look in his eyes, manic. He started pulling John toward the trap door. He had it open now and was actually trying to shove John down the wooden ladder that led into darkness.
"John, you have to. I need to ---"
John was astounded, struggling against George, trying to figure out what the hell was happening, when two figures appeared at the end of the hall. John was relieved. They were Spartans. They silently approached.
"No --" George shouted, throwing himself in front of John as they calmly opened fire.
George's head exploded in pink mist. John fell. Before he even hit the floor John’s mind briefly flashed on Sherlock as the unholy thunder of a massive explosion engulfed him.
After that, John knew nothing but darkness.
And after that, nothing.
To be continued . . .
Chapter 11: Evidence.
Sherlock stood up. The prisoner’s eyes were faltering shut. The painkillers were really setting in. Sherlock had correctly judged that the farmer was not involved with the production, nor a user, of opium and as such he saw that whatever had been administered was hitting the ascetic farmer pretty hard.
He tucked the laptop under his arm.
"I need an empty office. To prepare my analysis. Show me, please," he demanded of the ex-IRA Spartan man, who was standing, watching Sherlock and the prisoner thoughtfully. More thoughtfully than Sherlock thought was warranted; all that they had learned so far was the tale of the death of an unimportant dancing boy, long ago.
He stared him down with his laser-like gaze until the larger man looked away and gestured to the door.
"Just go to the last door at the end of the hall. There’s a desk."
Sherlock watched as the male nurse bent over to attend to the prisoner. Then he hurried down the hall. He glanced into a few of the other rooms and they were all empty. Apparently, the bunker was empty except for the room with the prisoner. He had been gone precisely one hour; if he was quick, he could still catch Mac and get a flight out of this place, back to John.
Beheaded. Monroe was accused of beheading the boy on the battlefield. And apparently the boy had been still alive, since they had brought a charge of murder. Who would have sent the head back to the warlord? Why?
If the prisoner’s story was true, someone was sending the warlord a message, a message that had something to do with the tragic
Mahmoud. He frowned.
He started in on the laptop. He had hoped to ask Mac to detour to Bagram Airfield, probably an hour’s flight, so that he could speak to the Judge Advocate there who had been purportedly defending Monroe’s case, try and look at the court files. Now he felt strongly that there was no time for that. He felt his separation from John more and more keenly; in fact it felt like panic, an emotion that Sherlock simply did not permit himself.
The prisoner had been wearing a woven band tied around his wrist. It had a distinctive pattern. It was a tribal pattern from some of the villages in the Korengal Valley. The farmer was local, then; from the Korengal.
The compound that was the target of John’s op, that compound was very near those villages.
The warlord, the one that had "owned" Mahmoud, had power over the farmer’s district, he had said.
Sherlock felt that these facts pointed to the compound possibly being in the hands of the unnamed warlord. What that meant, he did not yet know; but he didn’t necessarily believe in coincidences. Not unless all other possibilities had been ruled out.
Sherlock’s fingers flew on the laptop and he hacked the Judge Advocate’s system again.
This time he searched for the Monroe evidence files; hopefully, in liaising with the London offices, the local defense advocate had scanned in the case evidence. And Sherlock was right. With just a little trouble he found the file and quickly downloaded it onto a memory stick, together with the video of Mahmoud from the burned DVD. He gave himself just five minutes to glance over what was there; a full analysis could wait.
Exhibit 1 was a sworn affidavit signed by one Captain John Watson, just over three months ago. It appeared to be John’s genuine signature;
but he reserved judgment on that. It was a narrative of what had happened the fateful day John was shot in the shoulder in Afghanistan.
This was a story that John had steadfastly refused to ever relate to Sherlock; it had even been the subject of several of their rare but heated arguments, causing John more than once to storm out of 221b and not return, alarmingly, until the next morning. After that, Sherlock stopped asking, but he never stopped trying to find out the truth.
* * *
The affidavit stated as follows: that Captain Watson, M.D., had been with a specially assigned unit of the 3rd Parachute Regiment to Task Force 575 in the fall of 2009. That on the day in question Captain Watson had been leading a 4-man unit comprised of himself, Lt. Monroe, Corporal Stratton and Private Carr. That they had been ambushed by enemy fighters. That Captain Watson had seen a young soldier fire his rifle directly at Lt. Monroe’s head, and had returned fire with his pistol; that he had taken a shoulder wound from the boy’s bullet. That he believed that he killed the boy from his own shot. That he had stayed in the firefight but started to lose consciousness, at which point someone, he thought Monroe, dragged him to a helicopter.
Captain Watson declared that Lieutenant Monroe had been with him for some minutes attending his injuries. That he had then lost consciousness. That Captain Watson swore that under no circumstances whatever was it conceivable that Monroe could have beheaded the boy fighter with a Gurkha kukri knife, as he understood was alleged to have occurred on the field of battle while the boy was still living. That he had no knowledge whatsoever as to what had happened to the boy’s head afterwards.
That Lt. Monroe was among the bravest and most honorable soldiers in the 3rd Parachute Regiment, indeed in the entire British armed
forces, and that any suggestion that he would do such a dishonorable and pointless act was a slander on the spotless reputation of this soldier. That he stood ready and indeed demanded to give evidence in person at any proceeding required to clear Lt. Monroe’s name.
Exhibit 2 was a grainy photograph of a dead body laid out on blood-soaked ground. It lacked a head and there was a horrible clean wound severing the neck. Sherlock understood that Gurkha kukri knives, curved and deadly, were renowned for their sharpness and power. They were the traditional weapon of the Royal Gurkha Rifles, a regiment of the British Army.
Exhibit 3 was a video clip. It showed the events John had described in his affidavit, from a shaky videocam apparently attached to
someone’s helmet. The vantage point of the camera showed at various times John, and three other men in Parachute Regiment uniforms. He saw John hurl himself in front of the bullet aimed at Lt. Monroe, and saw the boy fly back. He saw blood spewing.
Sherlock had never viewed any crime scene evidence that affected him in the slightest, and so he was shocked when he had to a violent urge to vomit upon seeing John go down, blood flying from his shoulder and soaking his uniform. Dizzy, heart pounding, he forced himself to watch more.
John was still shooting but collapsed as Monroe grabbed him and dragged him toward a shadow. The helicopter was off camera. John and Monroe disappeared from view. The camera served and jostled. Someone whose back was to the camera ran to the body of the fallen boy and hacked his head off at a single stroke with a huge curved knife. Sherlock saw blood spew like a geyser from the wound; the boy had indeed still been alive. The video stopped.
* * *
Shaken, Sherlock closed his eyes for a moment. Then he turned to the last evidence. Exhibits 4 and 5 were were signed, identical affidavits from Lt. Stratton and Private Carr, attesting that Monroe, after securing Watson into the helicopter, had then rushed back out of the helicopter and thrown himself at the wounded boy, and hacked his head off with a gurkha knife.
That to their knowledge, Monroe had been in the Gurkha Rifles before joining the Parachute Regiment and that they had seen him in possession of such a knife, which he kept on his person at all times.
That they would prefer not to speculate as to why Lieutenant Monroe should have done such a horrific act.
That they had no knowledge of what had happened to the boy’s head.
* * *
What did it all mean? Sherlock itched to peruse the evidence with minute scrutiny but he felt the pressure of time. But something caught his eye.
The body of the boy.
His slender arm thrown out to the side, coated with his own blood.
But a band of some sort tied was around his wrist. Sherlock enhanced the photo. It was not of good quality, but it would do. The filthy band
had a woven pattern, almost identical to that of the prisoner. A boy, owned by a warlord of the prisoner’s district, might well wear such a band, whose tribal pattern marked him as being from the Korengal. The boy was almost certainly the proud, the sad Mahmoud named by the prisoner. The boy whose head had been sent back to the warlord.
How could Lieutenant Monroe possibly have accomplished such a thing, assuming he had in fact cut off the boy’s head?
He looked closer at the video. There was something not right. There was telltale haze around the edges of the last bit of the clip, right where the man ran with his back to the camera and hacked off the fallen boy’s head. Sherlock replayed it, over and over. The video had been doctored.
It had been done exceedingly well, but Sherlock could see it as plainly as if it had been done with fingerpaints. He deployed a program from a secure, very secret website which would remove the tampering and restore the original image. This took valuable minutes and he caught himself actually biting his own fingernails, a habit he had broken in school.
The man’s face never turned toward the camera. But for a fraction of a second, there was a flash of profile. Sherlock patiently waited as the digital image coalesced. The man was black-haired and had a sharp, regular profile. He had a small scar on his cheekbone.
Sherlock grabbed the laptop and ran from the room. He knew that profile.
It was the ex-IRA security man from Spartan LLC. He was just down the hall with the prisoner.
* * *
The guard was no longer outside the door.
Sherlock turned the door handle and was unsurprised that it was locked. With his one hand useless, he vacillated momentarily as to what to do.
Then he pulled out his gun and shot the doorhandle off and kicked in the door.
The male nurse and the translator were nowhere to be seen. Instead, as Sherlock burst into the room, the ex-IRA man sprang back from the prisoner, leaving dangling electrical wires from a small box which now crashed to the floor.
The prisoner was convulsing from electrical shocks and there was a horrid smell of smoke and burning flesh.
The Spartan guard threw a chair at Sherlock and the gun flew from his hand at the same time Sherlock kicked viciously back with his impossibly long leg, knocking the man’s gun away.
Now nobody had a gun.
The guard came at Sherlock with a knife, slashing furiously, but Sherlock grabbed the IV pole and wielded it, fending both men off. Sherlock now thought he could hear someone coming down the hall. The Spartans redoubled their attack.
Sherlock ducked and speared the guard with the end of the IV pole, straight through the throat. He went down gurgling, slumping against the wall. Then Sherlock rolled just as the ex-IRA man threw himself on Sherlock and they both went down to the floor. Sherlock cursed. A prime rule of krav maga was never let yourself get maneuvered onto the floor. At least they were both down.
Sherlock was being punched with the force of a sledgehammer. Now the man had Sherlock’s head in his giant palms, pounding it over and over into the concrete floor. With a superhuman effort, Sherlock pushed his dislocated right arm out of the loosened sling, behind him, and felt for the gun. He could feel blood trickling from his head and oozing into his eyes and ears.
Now he could feel the man’s fingers twisting about his neck. Soon it would be all over. His mind flashed on John. His fingers closed around the cold metal of the gun and he rolled just enough to shove the muzzle into the Spartan man’s groin and pull the trigger.
He lay there, stunned, gasping and bleeding. A man’s face suddenly hovered in his line of sight, outlined by fluorescent lights. Concerned brown eyes met his. He felt himself gently lifted.
It was the brown-haired, muscular medic from the barracks, the one who was devouring John with his eyes.
* * *
When he awoke, he was being tended by the medic. No one appeared to have come in response to the commotion other than this young man; almost a boy, really.
"Why are you here?" Sherlock muttered. His lips were bruised and swollen and he felt some loose teeth.
"I followed you. I heard the gun go off. I thought you might need help."
"Little late," Sherlock spat scornfully. Every part of his body was in excruciating pain which he compartmentalized and put away to think about another time. Pain was at the moment unacceptable and worse, inconvenient. He hauled himself up. A few ribs broken, probably. Nothing he couldn’t handle. The aching in his head was not just from his wounds. He felt a sick dread. John.
"Why did you follow me? Why didn’t anyone come — surely someone heard?"
The medic shook his head. "No one comes here. This is – it’s a Spartan facility. It’s soundproofed, anyway; but if anybody did hear anything, they would just go the other way. No one interferes with Spartan."
"Then how did you get in?" Sherlock didn’t trust him; it was too convenient.
"Once, I was ordered to come here in the middle of the night, to – tend – to a prisoner. . . they never changed the code on the door. I never came back, though." His face was troubled and Sherlock imagined well what he must have found.
"Help me get to my helicopter. I don’t want to attract any more attention than I already have. I have to get back to the Korengal right now."
"Back to Doctor Watson, you mean."
Sherlock attempted to stare the man down with the icy gaze that generally made other men flinch. Calm, warm eyes looked back and did not flinch.
"If you like. What concern is it of yours?"
"I knew Doctor Watson. In Helmand."
The medic was hauling Sherlock up and re-fastening his shoulder sling. Sherlock pushed him away before he could start in on his various bleeding wounds. He had to find John. Something was not right about this mission, about the compound.
"What’s your name?"
"Corporal Caldwell. Stuart Caldwell."
* * *
They left the compound and Caldwell dragged a limping Sherlock into a nearby tent where he bandaged Sherlock’s head elaborately and pushed him into a wheelchair with an IV drip attached. "Just hold this, no one will look closely," Caldwell said.
Sherlock explained where Mac was waiting and Caldwell rapidly wheeled him off through the cheerful fobbit crowds. No one paid them any notice.
They were at the helipad in moments and Mac waved a phelgmatic greeting, apparently unsurprised to see Sherlock brought in a wheelchair. Sherlock held out his hand to shake Caldwell’s.
"Thank you, Caldwell. I won’t forget this."
"You don’t have to. I am coming with you," Caldwell said, clambering on board.
Sherlock refused. "You have to go, I can’t be delayed. I need to get back now -- don’t stand in my way. You can’t go AWOL, anyway."
"I won’t. I’m supposed to be getting on a plane right now. To Dubai. I have four day’s leave."
"Look, Caldwell, thank you for helping me. But I don’t need you. Please leave now."
" Whatever you are doing, if it is in the Korengal, and Doctor Watson’s with Spartan . . . I saw what happened back there in the barracks. You and John are with Spartan now. And you just killed two Spartan operatives. I don’t understand what’s going on here, but it sounds like you are afraid for John. What if he’s hurt? Do you think the men from Spartan will save him now?"
Sherlock shoved Caldwell into the cabin and yelled at Mac to take off for Outpost Typhon.
"Now tell me why you are so keen to help me, and Doctor Watson. Don’t leave anything out. I still might just throw you out the door here," Sherlock threatened. He half meant it.
Now he didn’t know who to trust. This Caldwell seemed to have a strong interest in John. He had shown up that first night on base, with the other medics. And now he had been been following Sherlock on base, although Sherlock had only been there an hour. He cursed himself for letting his guard down. In London, he would have instantly known he was being followed. He needed to sharpen up. Something about being separated from John was ruining his faculties.
Caldwell blushed. Sherlock remembered seeing that before, at the barracks when the other medics were singing to John. The blushing made him angry. Now he understood. Caldwell had . . .feelings for John.
"Well, you’ll have to do better than that," he mocked.
Caldwell raised his face, gritting his teeth. "Now I don’t know that it is any of your business, either. I respect Captain Watson more than any man I have ever known. I would do anything to help him. That’ll have to do for you, Mister Sherlock Holmes."
Sherlock narrowed his eyes.
"It is perfectly clear that you have - -- a strong attraction to Doctor Watson. Believe me when I tell you that you need to forget it."
"Believe me, I have tried," Caldwell said softly.
Sherlock was not a sympathetic man. But something in Caldwell’s voice stirred a slight flutter of what might be the seeds of pity.
Or perhaps not.
"All right," Caldwell said. "It’s perfectly clear that you and Doctor Watson are together. He made it clear and open the other night. So I’ll tell you. When I was younger, I was ashamed of who I was; what I wanted. What I needed. And then I met Doctor Watson and Lieutenant Monroe. Maybe you know about them; maybe you don’t, it’s not for me to say. But I can tell you that I saw them, once, together. They didn’t know I was there."
Sherlock was astounded that the man would tell him something so intimate. He felt a curious sensation, both cold and burning, like a child who goes into a forbidden room.
"And after that, I was never ashamed anymore. I knew what I wanted. And though they never knew it, they showed me that it was - - - beautiful."
Caldwell’s eyes met Sherlock’s, steady and somehow radiant. Sherlock looked away.
"You are a very fortunate man, Sherlock Holmes."
Sherlock clenched his fist around his scar. He knew that. He had always known it. From the very moment he looked up to see John’s face in the lab at Barts; hunted, wary, and strangely compelling to Sherlock.
He was a very fortunate man.
And he was afraid. Afraid that his luck had just run out.
To be continued . . .
Chapter 12: Into Dark Waters.
Your eyes speak to me
They tell me be calm
They tell me be strong
Swimming out so deep
Now I can’t breathe
And it’s exactly where I belong
Cause it feels like a run of a lifetime
And nothing’s gonna save us now
Let the waves come crashing down . . .
I am drowning in your love
Lyrics to "Drowning," All Rights Reserved Armin van Buuren
"Mac, you have to take us to my unit. Down there. I have to get to Doctor Watson."
"Hell, Fifty, I don't have orders for that. Hell, I didn't really have orders to even bring you back. Not to speak of your friend – whoever he is – here."
"Mac. Please. You have to help me get to Watson. If I have to hike in, it may be too late. If you won’t land us, all right; we'll jump." Sherlock began pulling on a parachute.
Caldwell leaned into the cockpit. "Sir, the number of men Doctor Watson saved in this bloody war can't be counted. Now this time, he's the one that needs saving. Drop in there, please, for the love of God," Caldwell begged.
Mac scowled. "This war," he cursed at nobody in particular.
They were over the nightclub now. They could see devastation, the compound was collapsed into rubble and smoke, making a raw crater in the mountainside. The other side of the compound was still relatively intact. The colored lights twinkled with macabre festivity.
Spartan men were picking carefully through the wreckage, lining up enemy dead for identification. The MEDEVAC had already departed; there were no Spartan injured on the field. Mac dropped them gently at the top of the ridge above and they scrambled down. The first person Sherlock saw was Tunes, grimly photographing the enemy dead.
"Where is he? Where is Doctor Watson?" Tunes shrank back from Sherlock, who looked half mad with anxiety.
"Fifty, hell, we looked for an hour. No one can find him. Cat saw Doc and Forsyte go into the compound. But they never came out. It got blown to shit in there." Tunes' eyes filled with tears. "Fuck this valley."
"Where is Forsyte right now?"
Tunes swallowed and looked away. "Body bag. Pretty close range shot to the head. Now he’s got no head left, not to speak of."
Sherlock felt a cold suspicion. Had John done this? Was Forstyte involved in the deaths of Monroe and Mahmoud? Sherlock now believed that he must have been, but put away that line of thought.
"Where did you find Forsyte?"
Tunes pointed to the collapsed half of the compound, smoke rising. A single wall remained defiantly standing. Sherlock and Caldwell ran into the rubble.
"Fifty, don’t go, I told you, its full of explosives!" Tunes shouted.
It was almost impossible to believe this had been a substantial dwelling just hours before. It looked like a giant had hurled fistfuls of rock and timber from the heavens. They frantically picked their way through rocks, bits of body parts, snapped beams, fragments of clothing and furniture. It looked like an entrance to hell.
There were no more bodies here.
They called John's name, over and over.
Sherlock at length found a particular crater-like maw in the earth, filled with blood-sprayed rock, and he started digging, tossing rocks to try and get deeper, his fingers shredding. Caldwell dove in with a will. They were rewarded. There was a hole here, possibly leading to a tunnel that had been under the house. Sherlock called into the hole, and shone his flashlight. It lead down into darkness. Sherlock started crawling. Caldwell started to follow.
"No, its not safe. We can't both get trapped. I will call up if it’s all right. If anything happens to me, promise me you'll save John. No matter what."
Sherlock crawled into the tunnel. It was not long and was relatively intact. Sherlock felt a surge of hope when he realized that the tunnel may have offered shelter from the worst of the explosions. After about twenty meters, the tunnel opened to a larger space. Sherlock shone his beam around. This was an underground room, full of wooden crates.
He called John's name but there was only silence.
Sherlock inspected the crates and saw some were open. There were weapons, explosives, and gear. Guns, rocket launchers, grenades, gasses, night scopes, ammo. Shiny, new and state-of-the art. Enough to hold off a small army, if need be.
The crates were stamped Spartan, LLC. Now, all the pieces fell into place.
Sherlock put aside his rage and kept hunting for John. In a dark crevice in the corner, Serlock saw a tiny movement in the beam of his flashlight.
It was blood, trickling, running, making miniature rivulets in the dirt. With a cry he flung himself into the crevice and saw a boot protruding. He yanked and then an entire body came out. It was John.
There was a large bloody hole where his abdomen should be. Sherlock screamed for Caldwell. John's head lolled and Sherlock cradled it in his lap, the entire universe imploding. So much blood. As many murder scenes as Sherlock had ever seen, he thought he had never seen so much blood. John was barely breathing, wheezing, and every breath pushed another gush of blood from his massive wound. His eyelids fluttered.
"John, it's Sherlock, hold on, just hold on for me," Sherlock cried. Sherlock held John’s hand, tight, so tight, to pull him back from the brink of death if he could. John opened his lips to speak, but his eyes rolled back in his head.
Caldwell came with another man and a stretcher. Caldwell set grimly to work and they carefully pulled John out into the light. "Medevac in five," the other man said. Caldwell was almost as pale as John.
"He needs a transfusion now. Right now. I can’t wait to get to Bagram."
Sherlock said, "Do it, now, take mine, I’m the right type."
"That’s the last of my worries. It's going to take a lot."
Caldwell had a field transfusion kit and without further delay started a direct transfusion. He set the needle into Sherlock’s arm, then into John’s, watching the blood flow into John. It was too slow; John’s blood continued to flow out of the massive wound despite Caldwell’s desperate triage.
"Sherlock, I can’t take too much all at once. It’ll hurt you, it may kill you."
Sherlock grabbed at Caldwell with his bad right hand and clutched at him. "You listen to me, Caldwell. I don’t care if you take every last drop. I don’t care about me. Just save John. Whatever it takes. Do you hear me? Save. John."
Caldwell nodded. Their eyes met, hopeless.
The MEDEVAC was here. Caldwell had already taken almost one unit of blood and he unhooked the line while they carefully loaded John and then Sherlock aboard. Caldwell urgently wished they could get to Camp Bastion in Helmand, which had possibly the world’s finest trauma unit; but it was too distant; even the Lynx wouldn’t get them there in time.
They were going to run out of blood.
They would have to make a run for Bagram Airfield. And pray.
* * *
Caldwell took every drop he thought Sherlock could spare without actually killing him, and Sherlock was deep in shock from the sudden blood loss. If the flight had been any longer Caldwell would have started in on his own blood – but no one would have been there for John. Every one of John’s bodily systems was in crisis.
The blood that flowed from Sherlock’s veins had steadily flowed back out again. John was massively hemorrhaging. Caldwell picked as much twisted shrapnel from the gaping wound cavity as he could.
But he could tell it really didn’t matter.
The blood was slowing now. There wasn’t enough volume to keep John’s heart pumping. Soon, it would be too late.
They landed at Bagram where a trauma team was waiting.
* * *
Caldwell followed into the operating room and without asking for permission, set in to help the surgeons.
Several hours into the surgery, a violent shouting outside the OR briefly disturbed their concentration but it was abruptly silenced, and they kept working.
Ten hours later, Caldwell was almost ready to collapse with grief and exhaustion but with his last strength, went to find Sherlock. After receiving a transfusion to restore his lost blood volume, Sherlock had tried to force his way into the operating room and had to be forcibly restrained and sedated. This was not an uncommon event. Soldiers closer than brothers often were brought in together, grotesquely injured, caring only for the safety of their comrade.
In his weakened condition, Sherlock was slightly delirious from whatever they had shot him up with. He had been put in bed restraints to prevent him from hurting himself or trying to break into the critical care unit. He was attached to an IV to restore his fluids. Caldwell sat beside him.
Sherlock’s face blazed with joy. He tried to climb out of the bed and yanked at the restraints. "Thank God," he whispered fervently. "I must see him. Get me out of these stupid things."
"No, Holmes. He’s not stable yet. He’s still . . . unconscious. It is better for him that way, he sustained massive injuries and will be in – considerable pain – when he wakes up. Wait until the morning. If you would just calm down, they will probably release you."
Sherlock immediately settled down, like a fractious child who suddenly ran out of energy. Caldwell looked closely at Sherlock and realized he likely had neither eaten, nor drunk, in a long while. The skin of his face drew tight and pale over his bones and his eyes were sunken into hollows. One side of it was torn with numerous deep bloody gouges. He had re-dislocated his shoulder and Caldwell knew would be very fragile now and likely give him a great deal of pain. Probably it would be best after all if Sherlock stayed put.
Suddenly, it seemed like a good idea if he stayed put too.
After a moment, Caldwell’s head sank down against the little tray attached to Sherlock’s bed, and he fell fast asleep slumped over in the chair. Sherlock regarded at Caldwell’s sleeping form with something that might have been gratitude.
Sherlock did not sleep, but watched the hours crawl by on the clock while he forced his mind to work.
* * *
In the middle of the night, Caldwell went to check on John, and was unsurprised to be told he had sunk into a coma.
When Sherlock was finally allowed to see John, his body looked shrunken and frail, like a broken toy, a fragile ghost lying against the pillows. He was dwarfed by the myriad tubes and blinking, hissing machines surrounding him and keeping him alive. Sherlock reverently kissed his forehead.
He talked to John quietly for a long time, as long as they would let him. He really didn’t know what he was saying, but he knew that he was saying very important things. It might have been something about his last experiment in 221b; or it might have been a promise never to do experiments in 221b ever again; it might have been about how he had finally figured out who the counterfeiter was in the Finnish currency affair; it might have been that he was ready now to try that new restaurant that was upsetting Angelo so; then again, it might have been that he couldn’t live without John, that John had taught him how to live and how to love, but had never taught him how to live without him and he couldn’t leave Sherlock until he did. It might have been that he finally remembered, now, about the sun and the moon, and about orbits. The irresistibility of orbits, how the earth did go round the sun, of course it did; and it might have been that all his life he had been in the dark, but John was the sun. It might have been that he did not intend to live a single moment on this earth, after John left it.
* * *
John remained in a coma for days. During that time, when he was forced to leave John’s side, Sherlock went to work. The only thing that had mattered to John, the only reason they were here, was to clear Monroe’s good name. Sherlock dedicated himself to this with a burning vengeance. He didn’t do it for Monroe. He did it for John. Because it was the only thing he could do for John, now.
The story went like this:
The arms in the underground bunker at the nightclub had been sold illicitly to the warlord Tariq Khan, by someone highly placed at Spartan.
Khan had owned a beautiful bacha bazi boy, Mahmoud, who was getting older and wanted to be set free; to join the wars and gain honor, leave behind the shame of his life as an abused plaything.
On the night that Tariq Khan consummated the arms sale with Spartan, several of his most trusted comrades were with him at his compound, in his home village in the Korengal Valley. The men were in a mood for amusement after their business; and so, he had called for Mahmoud and the men had their way with him.
But Mahmoud boldly gained the notice of one of the warlords, and secretly sought his protection to smuggle him out, to let him take up arms and join the fight for Islam against the West. By the next morning, when the men left, Tariq Khan found that Mahmoud was gone.
This Khan would have revenged, given time. He would not permit his authority to be flouted by a bacha bazi boy. But Khan had been careless; and Mahmoud bragged to all who would listen that he knew all about the wonderful modern weapons that Khan had bought from the rich British businessmen. And he even knew where they were kept. Mahmoud was eager to gain face and did not realize that his loose talk would lead untimately to his doom.
The lesser warlord decided he, too, deserved have his own arsenal of beautiful new weapons, to increase his power and prestige in the region; and he bragged to a Spartan agent he had learned they were easily to be had, and had heard this from Tariq Khan’s own boy’s mouth.
And then Spartan knew that it was time for damage control.
Orders were given and photographs circulated. Wherever Mahmoud was to be found, he was to be taken; or if not, killed, and his head delivered to Tariq Khan. A warning of what happened to those who failed to maintain the sacred bond of secrecy.
It was most unfortunate that an allied fighter had a video camera transmitting at the very moment that a Spartan soldier had stupidly rushed to execute Mahmoud. More damage control; video evidence had to be eliminated and where it could not, be doctored; witnesses such as Stratton and Carr had to be — persuaded ---- to remember that Lieutenant Monroe, and not the Spartan man, had murdered Mahmoud.
Any inkling that Spartan soldiers were actually beheading Islamic boys on the battlefield would lead to an immediate loss of Spartan’s contract to operate what amounted to a private army in Afghanistan.
Much better that a British soldier, crazed with fury at the wound inflicted upon his lover, would do the unthinkable and behead the boy with his own gurkha knife.
A court martial was swiftly arranged, and when Monroe reached out for help to his only remaining friend, John Watson; well, Spartan was able to arrange that Monroe’s Judge Advocate conveniently failed to deliver John’s assurances that he would testify for him, and was coming to Afghanistan to help Monroe in any way that he could. No, this was not a message that they wanted Monroe to get.
Better that he should be left alone in his cell for a while, to think about the fact that no one was coming to help him at all.
And when that did not have the expected effect; when Monroe refused to loose heart or faith in John Watson or in himself; well, it was not really that difficult to slip someone into his cell in the night and make sure the noose was tight.
And still there were more loose ends. The simple matter of Mahmoud had multiplied to require damage control with Stratton, Carr, Monroe, and now John Watson, who appeared determined to redeploy and return to Afghanistan to meddle in this affair. It also appeared he had involved his partner, the infamous detective Sherlock Holmes.
Things were getting worse and worse.
Spartan liked to follow the policy of keeping one’s friends close, and one’s enemies closer.
It followed, then, that it was time to bring Doctor Watson into the Spartan fold. And a bonus gift was given when Sherlock Holmes voluntarily entered their net. Now, a very close eye could be kept upon Holmes and Watson at all times.
And if they kept at their quest to nose about where didn’t belong; well, soldiers died every day in the Korengal.
Spartan had relied upon George Forsyte to facilitate the elimination of Holmes and Watson. But Forsyte had become suspicious, and strangely resistant. Spartan management had failed to fully take into account the bond between old comrades at arms. Forsyte and Watson shared a bond from their former Para Regiment, and many close calls battling together in Helmand. In the end, Forsyte’s suspicions became overwhelming. He tried to protect John during the operation on the nightclub.
And when he realized in the end that he had failed, Forsyte had made the ultimate sacrifice.
All of this Sherlock pieced together from careful sifting of the evidence he had hacked from the Judge Advocate’s computer system; from personal records he hacked from George’s cell phone and laptop; and, of course, Spartan’s own computer systems.
Revenge was not sweet. Ultimately it required the involvement of Mycroft but by then, Sherlock almost couldn’t remember why he was so furious with him. It seemed to be part of a different life altogether. Sherlock's entire world was Afghanistan, Bagram Airfield, a hospital room where John Watson lay in a seemingly endless sleep.
Mycroft made certain calls that ultimately led to a public inquiry into the Mahmoud affair; the posthumous clearing of Monroe’s good name; and the termination of Spartan’s billion-pound contract to operate in Afghanistan.
* * *
On the twelfth day, John opened his eyes.
His eyes focused, fuzzy, first on a glowing digital clock . It was 2:20 a.m. The place where he was lying --a bed -- was very dark. But not completely quiet. There were muted sounds that were familiar, but confusing, at the same time.
His eyes seemed to adjust a little to the dark. There was a person-shape hovering over him but it was too dark to distinguish any features. He felt cool pressure in his left palm.
He must have made a sound because the figure came closer, very close, and he felt more pressure on his hand.
Now he could see. It was an alarmingly thin man with a mop of dark hair and haunted icy blue eyes. His face seemed achingly beautiful to John -- although his head was so fuzzy that this might have been an hallucination. John felt a smile form on his cracked lips without understanding why. His voice was a mere croak.
"Hullo. I'm. . . afraid. . .um. . . --- who --who are you? Do I -- know you?" he said wonderingly.
An expression of -- pain? – as though from a blow long dreaded, and yet sharper and more agonizing than expected, passed over the man's gaunt face.
"My name — is Sherlock Holmes. You do . . .know me."
The voice was unexpectedly deep, baritone; he realized that it was cultured, very toff, but didn't knew why he knew this.
John sighed and closed his eyes for a moment. He didn't know anything, actually. He was very tired. He felt like he was swimming in a cold sea and losing his strength. Any moment he would go under. But the strong pressure on his hand anchored him to reality. It was the only real thing.
"Do you know who am I, then?" he mumbled weakly.
"Your name is John Watson. You're a soldier. You're a doctor. You've been -- "
Here the beautiful man's voice cracked and he stopped speaking for a moment and bowed his head and the pressure on his left hand grew painful. Now he realized that this man was holding his hand.
John felt a warmth in his chest. But it was all right. He could not understand anything, but he felt this. And the name, John Watson, he felt that was right. Yes, he was John Watson. He was a soldier. He was doctor.
"You’re in — Afghanistan," this man continued, his voice choking on the words. John opened his eyes again.
The man -- surely he didn't say his name was Sherlock, how odd -- was staring with concentration at John's face.
Afghanistan. Yes, that too sounded right. He knew about Afghanistan. At least he thought he did. There was a huge white space where knowledge, where thoughts and memories ought to reside. Suddenly his heart was racing. "God, what’s wrong with me!" He was thrashing now, trying to get out of the bed but there were some kind of restraints --
This man, this Sherlock -- actually put his cool hand against John's chest and he felt calmer.
"John--- it's all right, John -- you don't remember me. But it's going to be all right. Ask yourself this -- do you trust me?"
This Sherlock Holmes was staring at intensely him as though his answer would be the most important thing he would ever hear.
Do I trust him? John turned the word over in his mind. Trust.
He considered his hand, clasped in the other man's longer fingers, palm to palm. He vaguely noticed that he hadn't felt any impulse to remove it. He didn't think he was accustomed to holding men's hands quite in this way; but then again, he just didn't know anything. His head hurt. It was going to explode, probably.
He considered this man's face, he almost looked unhinged with some strong emotions (Pain? Grief? Guilt?) and the evidences of a physical ordeal, illness in the sunken cheekbones and hollows of his eyes (he is right; I am a doctor, John acknowledged.)
He considered the feeling in his chest where this man's other hand was pressing firmly. All of this felt completely alien, his own body felt like it was unconnected to him somehow, it was somebody else's body, and this tall man was a total stranger, and yet--
He felt himself flushing and didn't understand why that should be except that the man was so bloody close, and he was feeling dizzy but the question -- did he trust this man? -- he felt he must answer and answer truthfully.
"Yes. I do -- trust you. God knows why."
There was a fire in the other man's eyes now: joy, triumph.
"Good. That's all we need. For now. I'm going for the doctor."
"How long?" John asked. His strength was gone and soon he would be gone again, too. Sherlock Holmes looked away. Then he said, twelve days, and in his voice John thought he could hear a whole universe of grief.
Then the cold sea overtook him, and he was falling down into dark waters where the only point of light was Sherlock Holmes' eyes.
The End of Part One.
The adventure continues in "The Irresistibility of Orbits, Part Two: The Forgetting of Things Past." Comments are always gratefully appreciated at this point in the proceedings <3
The author has enormous respect and gratitude for our armed forces serving in wars everywhere, particularly Afghanistan. The author did extensive research to write this story. Along with numerous resources on the internet, acknowledgment is given to the insights gained from reading the following books:
War. Sebastian Junger
3 Para. Patrick Bishop.
Ground Truth. Return to Afghanistan. Patrick Bishop
Greetings from Afghanistan, Send More Ammo. Benjamin Tupper
Koran, Kalishnikov, and Laptop: The Neo-Taliban Insurgency in Afghanistan. Antonio Guistozzi
The following films are all excellent but the most important, that everyone should see, is the amazing documentary, "Restrepo," a film by Sebastian Junger and Tim Heatherington (who was recently killed doing photojournalism on the conflct in Libya in April 2011. ) "Restrepo" follows American soldiers stationed in the Korengal Valley shortly before the Americans had to abandon it to the Taliban.
Also, "The Hurt Locker," dir. Kathryn Bigelow; "Jarhead," dir. Sam Mendes, and "Three Kings," dir. David O. Russell.
Finally, the PBS Dateline documentary "The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan," a hard-hitting account of the bacha bazi practice in Afghanistan, was indespensible, shocking and heartbreaking. The author prays that this practice is rooted out of Afghanistan and that Western powers will do all they can to ensure that this happens as quickly as possible for the sake of the child victims.
Note: The plot device concerning the court martial of Lietuenant Monroe in connection with the beheading on the field of battle of an enemy fighter was inspired in part by the 2010 case of Canadian Army Captain Robert Semrau, whose court martial proceedings took place partly in Afghanistan for the purpose of obtaining eyewitness testimony that otherwise would not have been available. Captain Semrau was accused of shooting a wounded insurgent on the field of battle in Afghanistan, a mercy killing of a critically wounded enemy fighter; and also the 2010 UK case of a Gurkha soldier accused of beheading an enemy fighter's body with his kurkhi knife, purportedly for the purpose of facilitating later identification. The soldier was disciplined and investigated for violations of the Geneva Convention.