It was only three days late. Three days, but she’d been as regular as clockwork since the age of fifteen. And anyway, it was easy enough for a doctor like her to sneak a test kit from the medical storeroom—there were always plenty to be had. Pregnancy was one complaint they rarely had to deal with in the tiny camp hospital.
Joan balanced gingerly on the metal toilet cover in the cramped loo, waiting. Her shoulder began to cramp as she sat there, and she rolled it slowly with a groan. She was tense. Well, why wouldn’t she be? This was not a situation she’d ever thought she’d be in. Oh, she’d thought about it in an abstract sense—it went through her mind once in a while, when she heard from her brother, or got one of the occasional baby announcements from old med school mates. Or, even more rarely, when rumours circulated that some service woman or another was going home on an “unexpected” leave. Everyone knew what that meant.
It meant two options. Option A: find a discreet woman’s clinic somewhere and an understanding medical officer, willing to write you up a recommendation for a few weeks off. Go. Deal with the problem. Then return to the front as soon as possible. Option B…
But she’d never really considered Option B.
Time was up. Joan took a deep breath, biting her lip. It was probably nothing. Three days. Three days could be stress. Exhaustion. A touch of the flu. Three days was nothing important, certainly nothing to be worried about. She would look down, and there would be no worries, no choices, no options. Just a little minus sign and a lighter heart and a full day’s work ahead of her. Like always.
She looked down. Shit.
“Thank you for coming in on such short notice, Joan. Couldn’t have asked for more perfect timing, what with Molly going on maternity leave next week.”
Mike smiled cheerfully down at her as they meandered side-by-side down the hall. The old hospital had changed significantly from Joan’s last visit, nearly five years ago. She hadn’t known Mike was working here—he was several years her senior, and they hadn’t belonged to the same social group. But he seemed like a nice guy, and when he’d heard that a fellow Bart’s graduate was looking for a job, he’d called her personally and offered an interview.
“I’m just happy to have work,” Joan said. Though the irony of the fact that she was providing maternity leave cover didn’t escape her. She glanced self-consciously down at her still-flat belly, then jerked her head up again in annoyance. Stupid. Of course she wasn’t showing, she was only a month-and-a-half along.
“We’re lucky to have you,” Mike replied warmly. “Your CV is quite impressive. Are you sure you won’t be bored? It’s mostly just routine autopsies, hum-drum stuff compared to your work in the field.”
“I don’t mind.” It was true. “Might be a nice change, actually.”
“If you have a strong stomach,” Mike joked. “That’s why I became a lecturer, it’s all dry textbooks for me. No more cleaning up messes when one of the kids accidentally nicks the lower intestine, or smelling like an over-full skip for the rest of the day.”
“Mmhmm,” Joan agreed noncommittally. She couldn’t imagine hanging up her stethoscope for teaching. Not that she was likely to be using a stethoscope much in her new job either. The dead didn’t go in for heartbeats, in general. At least, not in her experience.
“Let me just introduce you to Dr. Hooper—she’s the woman you’ll be filling in for. She can give you the rundown—you’ll be shadowing her for the first few days, so don’t worry about procedure just yet. And I can give you a hand with the paper work until you get the hang of it.”
He pushed open the door leading to a brightly lit lab, full of state-of-the-art equipment. Joan barely stopped herself from whistling as she took in gleaming post mortem tables, a ventilated formulin mixing unit, and stainless steel dissecting benches. There was even an overhead projector, presumably for teaching purposes, and a bunch of brand-new electronic apparatus she didn’t recognize from her days as a student. “Bit different from my day,” she commented, stepping inside.
“And mine,” Mike chuckled. “Molly? Molly, are you—oh, it’s you, Sherlock.”
Mike stopped abruptly, and Joan nearly bumped into him. She leaned around his solid bulk to get a better view of the room. Seated at one of the counters on the far side of the lab was a pale, praying mantis of a man, with a thatch of unruly dark hair. He was bent over one of the microscopes, ignoring them completely.
“You know you’re not supposed to be in here without a staff member,” Mike chided, but he sounded more amused than angry. “Have you seen Molly recently?”
“Canteen,” the man grunted without looking up. “She offered to get coffee.”
“Ah,” Mike said, as though that explained everything. He turned back to Joan. “Sorry, Joan, it looks like Molly’s a bit occupied at the moment. Shall I walk you through the paperwork now then, and we can do the lab bit later?”
Before she could respond, the pale man interrupted. “Who is she?”
He’d directed the question at Mike, eyes narrowed. Rather rude, considering Joan was standing right there.
“Sherlock, this is Dr. Joan Watson, an old friend,” Mike replied. Joan quietly thought “old friend” was stretching the point a bit, but she was hardly going to argue. “She’ll be filling in while Molly’s on maternity leave. Joan, this is Sherlock Holmes. He’s a private detective, and he uses the labs here sometimes.”
“Consulting detective,” the man—Sherlock Holmes—corrected Mike haughtily.
“Nice to meet you,” Joan said.
“Hmm,” Sherlock hummed. He was staring at her in an incredibly invasive way. It made her want to cross her arms over her abdomen and hide. Oddly though, she didn’t feel like her breasts were in any danger of being ogled. “Afghanistan or Iraq?”
“Um…what?” she said flatly, glancing at Mike. He was hiding a grin, the git.
“I said, Afghanistan or Iraq,” Sherlock repeated, rolling his eyes impatiently.
Joan opened her mouth to retort, but just then a petite, if distinctly rotund, brunette woman bustled into the lab. She was clutching a steaming paper cup in one hand and a doughnut in the other. “Sherlock, I got your—oh!”
“Molly,” Mike smiled at the brunette. “I was just looking for you. This is Dr. Watson. She’ll be covering your shift starting next week.”
“Oh!” Molly said again, this time in delight. Joan eyed the sloshing coffee warily as the woman attempted to wave hello with her hands full. “That’s wonderful. I was beginning to worry we wouldn’t find anyone. It’s not the most glamorous job—I mean, what do you put in a job ad for morgue technician?” she giggled nervously.
“Wanted: one qualified medical professional, necrophiliacs need not apply,” Sherlock quipped, swooping in to grab the coffee cup out of Molly’s hand. “Don’t worry Molly, Dr. Watson here fulfills both criteria.”
“Er…thanks,” Joan said uncertainly.
Sherlock’s head swiveled back in her direction, as though he hadn’t expected her to answer. Joan rather regretted it herself. She felt uncomfortable under his x-ray gaze. Maybe if she just answered his question he’d stop staring? “It was Afghanistan, by the way. How did you know about that?”
He cocked his head to one side. “Yes,” he mused, ignoring her question. “Career military, invalided home recently. No, not invalided home…you were asked to leave.” Joan felt a bubble of anxiety rise in her stomach.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said with a frown, trying not to panic.
“Odd choice for an army doctor, working in a morgue,” Sherlock continued, still staring at Joan. “Not your first preference, but you can’t find other work and you need work, fast. Now, why would you need work so desperately if you were invalided home with an Army pension? So, no pension, and no injury. You were asked to leave.”
Joan swallowed. “I decided to leave. It was my own choice,” she said, clenching her fists.
Sherlock raised an eyebrow. “Was it indeed?” he murmured.
Mike gave a polite little cough. “Ahem. As I was saying…Molly, I was hoping you could give Dr. Watson a tour of the morgue facilities. Unless you’re busy?” He glanced pointedly in Sherlock’s direction.
Molly coloured. “No, I’m free. Sherlock was just leaving.”
“No, I wasn’t. The initial bruising pattern requires at least another twenty minutes to set in,” Sherlock cut in tactlessly.
Molly sent him a scathing look. “Thanks for that, Sherlock,” she hissed.
Molly rolled her eyes skyward for a moment before turning to Joan. “Sorry about all this,” she smiled, “I’ve been a bit out of sorts lately. Hormones, you know.”
“Yes, I understand.” All too well. “When are you due?” she asked politely.
“Not for a month, but I decided to go on maternity leave a bit early,” Molly gushed happily. “To get the house ready and everything. And Greg—that’s my husband—said I should take it easy.”
Sherlock gave a derisive snort. “What?” Molly asked crossly.
“Nothing,” Sherlock sneered.
“You know, you could be a little nicer to me,” Molly grumbled. “What would you do without me around to let you into the lab and help you with your experiments?”
“Yes, and what would you do without me around to give you excuses for snack breaks?” Sherlock smirked. “I’d recommend easing up on the doughnuts, by the way. You’ve put on at least thirty pounds so far.”
“Twenty-five,” Molly retorted heatedly.
“Twenty-five. And it’s baby weight!”
“Alright,” Mike said in a placatory tone. “Settle down children. It’s too early for dramatics.”
“I need to go anyway,” Sherlock sniffed, grabbing a long black coat from a nearby chair. He pulled it on in one smooth movement, hitching his shoulders once to settle the neckline. It was an improvement, Joan thought. He looked a little less ill-fed and pasty, a little more Byronic and confident. She was pretty sure it had something to do with the collar. “I left my riding crop in the cold storage room. Molly, text me pictures of the bruises that form within the next six hours.”
He slammed the door on his way out.
Joan stared after him for a second, before turning to Mike and Molly. “Did he just say ‘riding crop’?” she asked.
It was a sign of what was to come that both merely shrugged.
Joan didn’t see Sherlock again for another several days, and when she did it was entirely by accident—on his part, at least. She was fairly sure he’d gone out of his way to stay away from her up until then.
She’d skipped lunch that day, and by the time three o’clock rolled around she was starving. She popped into the canteen for tea (sadly decaffeinated) and a sandwich, then doubled back for a few Jammy Dodgers. She munched on them happily as she walked down the hall back to the morgue, savoring the raspberry filling. It was odd: she generally hated sweets. But over the past few weeks, she’d found herself hungering for pudding at nearly every meal. Food cravings were something you always heard expectant mothers whinge about, so much so that Joan had sometimes thought the descriptions of midnight fridge raids and bizarre food combinations (olives and cheesecake? Really?) were overblown. Now she knew better. The notion made her heart beat a little faster.
With a sigh, she shifted her thoughts in a safer direction. Her mind was already on the next cadaver waiting to be processed when she pushed open the door to the lab.
The cadaver in question was set up on the nearer of the two post mortem tables, its torso neatly covered in a white cloth. A dissecting bench had been pulled over and arranged nearby, with the proper implements laid out in readiness. The ventilator fans were whirring. Everything was perfectly in order for the autopsy, which was fine—except that Joan hadn’t done any of it.
“What are you doing?” She glared at the tall, skinny man standing poised over the body.
Sherlock’s eyebrows contracted into a scowl. “You’re not supposed to be here.”
“You’re the one who’s not supposed to be here,” Joan retorted, striding towards him. “I work here, remember?”
“Molly always leaves early on Thursdays,” he said, sounding almost sulky.
“Yeah, well, I’m not Molly,” Joan snapped. She stopped just short of him, reaching forward to pluck a sterile facemask from the box on the counter. She tossed one in his direction. “Put this on. I haven’t processed her yet, so I don’t have a cause of death. Could be contagious.”
Sherlock rolled his eyes. “It’s obvious that she died of some kind of overdose. Just look at her fingernails.”
Joan narrowed her eyes at him, still holding out the mask. “Until I’ve confirmed the cause of death, you have to wear a mask. It’s hospital procedure.”
He grumbled, but took the mask from her. “Happy?” he asked in a muffled voice once the mask was in place.
Joan snapped her own mask over her nose and mouth. “Overjoyed.”
She moved to the opposite side of the table, so the body lay between her and Sherlock. It was a woman, a few years younger than herself, with dyed blonde hair and a slender build. Unwillingly, she looked down at the woman’s fingernails. She could see what Sherlock meant: the woman’s thin, tapered fingertips were tinted a dark blue-purple, indicating circulation failure and advanced oxygen deprivation before death—a known side effect of some drugs and strong painkillers, but certainly not the only explanation.
When she looked up again, Sherlock was watching her. “What?”
“What’s your opinion, doctor?” he asked.
She frowned at him. “Of?”
“The body.” Another eyeroll. “You are a licensed medical professional, are you not?”
“No need to be snide,” Joan replied, letting her gaze fall back to the young woman. “I’m not used to talking while I work.”
“Neither am I.” She looked up and caught his eye again. “Yet, here we are.” His cheeks shifted, and she thought he might be smiling beneath the mask. “So. The body.”
“Female, young—early thirties, I’d say. Going by the bluish tinge in her extremities, she suffered from hypoxia and arteriole vasospasms leading to cyanosis immediately before death.” Joan leaned closer to the woman’s face, carefully parting her stiffed lips to look inside her mouth, then palpating her throat. “No signs of asphyxiation or strangulation. Overdose is possible,” she glanced at Sherlock, and sure enough he looked smug, “but heart attack or pulmonary embolism are also viable options,” she continued.
“If it were a pulmonary embolism, there would be evidence of respiratory distress,” Sherlock said dismissively, “and there is none. As for a heart attack,” he snorted. “Just look at her armpits.”
“Yes,” Sherlock replied. He lifted the cadaver’s left arm. “See?”
“No, I don’t, actually,” Joan said, peering at the woman’s underarm. It was shaved smooth and looked clean.
“Exactly!” Sherlock let the arm fall back on the table with a sickening smack that made Joan wince in sympathy. “Because there is nothing to see. If she had sweated profusely, as she would have prior to suffering a major heart attack, there would be salt residue and bacterial discoloration. But there’s nothing!”
“Alright.” Joan frowned down at the body. “So, it wasn’t a heart attack then. What makes you so sure it was an overdose though?”
“I’m not sure,” Sherlock said to her surprise. “That’s why I needed to see the body, obviously. A man’s guilt rests on the cause of this woman’s death.”
“Does this have anything to do with the bruising from last time?” Joan asked curiously.
“No, of course not,” Sherlock frowned. “Different case entirely. The last one was much more dull.”
He pushed away from the table, pulling off his facemask and beginning to pace. “The brother had motive to poison her, obviously he wanted the inheritance for himself, but there’s no evidence. It must be staring me in the face!” He whirled back to the corpse in frustration. “Ugh, if only Anderson weren’t such an idiot, I could have questioned him longer…”
“Do you know if she takes any medicines regularly?” Joan asked, struggling to follow the detective’s garbled explanation. “If there was a change in her normal regime—”
“There’s no way the brother could have altered her medicines,” Sherlock interrupted, still pacing angrily. “They were estranged and rarely spoke.”
“Well, maybe he overwhelmed her by force and shot her up with the drugs,” Joan suggested.
“Impossible.” Sherlock pointed at the body. “Do you see bruises? Scratch marks? Any sign of a struggle? And no needle pricks either. Nothing but blue fingers and cardiac arrest!” He grimaced at the dead woman, as though the lack of damning evidence was somehow her fault.
Joan chewed her lip. Hypoxia, arteriole vasospasms, cyanosis and cardiac arrest…
“Reynaud’s Syndrome,” she said suddenly.
Sherlock stopped dead. “What?”
“Reynaud’s Syndrome,” Joan repeated, wondering how she hadn’t thought of it before. “It’s pretty rare in someone this young, but it happens. It’s when severe cold or strong emotions cause circulation problems in the extremities, just like this.” She frowned slightly. “Shouldn’t be fatal though. Not unless she had some other kind of autoimmune disease as well.”
Sherlock’s eyes lit up. “That’s it!” he shouted. “Oh, it’s clever, very clever, but I’ve got him now!” He spun around, grabbing Joan by the shoulders. “Can I use your mobile?” he demanded, eyes dilated in excitement.
“Uh, sure,” Joan muttered, pulling awkwardly out of his grasp. She fumbled in her lab coat pocket for the mobile, then thrust it into his waiting hands. His fingers flew across the tiny buttons.
“Done.” He threw the mobile in her direction (good reflexes and luck meant she caught it just in time) and grabbed his coat. “Thanks.”
“Where are you going?” Joan asked, as he headed towards the door.
“Sorry, got to dash. People to see, murders to solve,” he called over his shoulder, and then he was gone.
Joan looked down at the mobile in her hand. She clicked to the “Sent Messages” tab.
If brother has Lupus arrest brother. SH
Her eyebrows disappeared into her fringe. What had she gotten herself into?
After that, Joan saw Sherlock nearly everyday. He was never predictable, and always turned up at the most inconvenient moments. He would come in late in the evening, when Molly had already gone home, or in the middle of a staff meeting, or during lunch hour. And he pestered her with texts constantly: What’s the average fluid intake of a 22-year-old adult male? How many muscles do cats have in each ear? How much fentanyl would it take to kill a 68kg woman? He even texted her over the weekend, asking her to come in and open up the lab for him. Its Sunday. The morgue is closed on Sunday, she texted back.
That’s why I’m texting you. SH
i don’t work on Sundays.
People die on Sundays too. SH
It’s not like theyre going anywhere.
But she got up and went to Bart’s anyway.
“This better be a damn serious emergency,” Joan grumbled when she arrived at the employee’s entrance at the back of the hospital to find Sherlock already waiting. “Midsomer Murders was on.”
“If you lived closer to the hospital, it wouldn’t be so difficult to get here on weekends,” Sherlock commented. Joan shot him a gimlet-eyed look. Commuting distance was not the main problem she had with coming in to work on weekends.
“There’s nothing I can do about it,” she said finally, opening her purse to look for her employee pass. “I can’t afford anything in this neighborhood, not by a long shot. There’s no point moaning about it.”
“I’m looking at a flat,” Sherlock started. Joan stopped digging through her bag and glanced up at him, but he was staring down at his fingers. “221B Baker Street. I know the landlady, so we can rent it at a discount. It’s not within walking distance, but the commute would be far more reasonable than your current one.”
Joan’s forehead wrinkled in confusion. “Are—are you asking me to move in with you? As your…girlfriend?”
Sherlock’s head jerked upwards so quickly it was almost comical. “No!” he retorted vehemently. Joan would have been offended if she hadn’t been so relieved.
“Thank god.” She relaxed a bit. “So…whatare you saying?”
“I’m asking you to move in with me, as my flatmate,” Sherlock replied, stressing the final word. “You’re a doctor, an army doctor, in fact, so the violence and death associated with my line of work will not disturb you. You work at Bart’s morgue—sharing with you would grant me further access to the facilities. And you know better than to disrupt my experiments.”
Joan raised an eyebrow. “I’m still not seeing what I’m getting out of this arrangement.”
Sherlock twitched, then continued. “The rent is too much for me on my own, but with the two of us it should suit nicely.” Joan tapped her fingers against her bag. Sherlock looked strained. “And you—you’re…less of an idiot than most people.” He looked down at her, and for the first time in their brief acquaintance, Joan thought he seemed a bit nervous. She struggled to hold back a smile. “So?”
“I’ll think about it.” Sherlock seemed like a good bloke, despite his barking-mad-genius ways, but they barely knew each other. And…if she was honest with herself, she was scared. She knew enough about Sherlock to realize that if they moved in together, it would be hard to keep anything a secret from him for long, and there were one or two things she wasn’t sure she was ready to share yet.
Joan heaved a mental sigh, looking back down at her purse. She really ought to organize her things a little better—it always took ages to find her employee pass in the morning. Just when she’d finally managed to locate it, Sherlock stepped in front of her, waving a small square of plastic in front of the electronic sensor. The light flashed green and the door clicked. He grasped the handle and pulled it open for her. She glared.
“You bastard, you had a pass all this time?” she said, exasperated. “Why the hell didn’t you just let yourself in?”
“I borrowed it,” Sherlock replied evasively, which made Joan think he’d nicked the pass off someone. Probably Mike. “Besides, I wanted your opinion.”
Joan rolled her eyes, but felt an unexpected flush of warmth at the words. She stepped through the door. It was nice to be needed.
Joan had gotten so used to Sherlock’s eccentricities that when her mobile rang much later that night she groaned into her pillow and lifted the mobile to her ear without hesitation.
“Goddammit Sherlock, it’s one o’clock in the morning, what do you want?”
Joan sat up. The hesitant voice on the other end of the line wasn’t Sherlock. Come to think of it, he always texted, never called. “Bill?”
“Sorry to wake you,” Bill said apologetically. “I know it’s late, but I needed to talk to you.”
He was speaking in hushed tones, like he was trying not to wake someone up. Three guesses who, Joan thought grimly. “I thought we went over this,” she replied instead, sighing.
“We—well, we did, but—”
“Then what is this really about? Because I’ve been on my feet all day, and I’m fucking tired,” Joan snapped, exhaustion sharpening her voice to an edge.
She heard him moving around, a squeaking sound like a door opening, and then more shuffling. In her mind’s eye, she pictured him tiptoeing from the bedroom where his sleeping wife lay into the adjoining bathroom, and locking the door behind him. “I just need to know that you’re okay,” he said, a little louder than before. “I know this wasn’t what you wanted.”
Joan felt irritation blaze to life in her chest. “I don’t remember you forcing me,” she retorted. “I chose this. I told you about it—I told you I don’t need any help. And that’s the end of it.”
“You can’t just expect me to forget about it!” Bill hissed back, temper getting the better of him. “I’m going to be a father, Joan.”
His anger had a paradoxically calming effect on her; she took a deep breath. “I know. I’m sorry,” she said quietly. “But you’re already a father. And a husband. And—I don’t want those things. Not right now.” Not with you.
She could practically hear him deflate. “Right. Yes.” They were both quiet for a few long, awkward moments, before Joan broke the silence.
“Christ, what happened to us, Murray?” she asked, keeping the question purposefully light. “We’ve gotten so boring since we left the Fighting Fifth.”
He chuckled. “I think we just got old.”
“Yeah.” That was exactly the thought that had been running through her mind back then, as she’d stared down at that ominous little pink cross. You’re getting old. This might be your only chance.
Joan ran a hand through her messy hair. “What for?”
“For this. You.” He chuckled again, a little. “Let’s stay friends, okay? No matter what happens, let’s stick together.”
“I won’t interfere,” he said quickly. “That’s not what I meant. But if you need someone, if you’re in a tight spot, you can count on me.”
She smiled slightly, an odd half-quirk of her lips. “Right, okay. I’ll keep that in mind.”
Joan let the mobile fall to her lap. Her head was pounding now, but she was wide-awake. There was no way she was going back to sleep, not with her mind turning in circles like a frightened rabbit in her head. Despite her confident words to Bill, she had to idea what the fuck she was doing. Oh, she was a doctor—she had the prenatal vitamins, the regular check-ups scheduled at a clinic, all the physical things were prepared—but mentally? She had barely begun to wrap her head around the idea of having a baby inside of her, let alone started thinking about things like names and cots and motherhood. She couldn’t raise her child in a bedsit, that much was for sure. But she couldn’t raise it with a flatmate either. Could she?
Her mobile buzzed against her thigh, and she glowered down at it. The screen shone up at her: she had a new text message.
At the morgue. Come if convenient.
She rolled her eyes with a groan. How could going to a morgue at one o’clock on a Sunday night (or Monday morning, really) ever be considered convenient?
The mobile buzzed again.
If inconvenient, come anyway.
Joan stared down at the message. It didn’t seem particularly urgent and, really, she should probably just ignore it, or Sherlock would start to get ideas about bossing her around. But it wasn’t like she was going back to sleep anyway. Frankly, the distraction of a case sounded brilliant just now. Joan stood and stretched. Bart’s wasn’t so far away, after all.