Watson pushed aside the curtain and ducked through the low doorway, machine gun held at the ready. Two steps led down to a floor of pallets. He could see algae-infested ooze underneath, and he carefully kept away from a ragged half sheet of plywood covering a hole. Might’ve been accidental, or it might be an easy disposal method.
Nobody had got around to cleaning out the old sewers. Nobody actually gave a damn.
He looked around, surveying the crowd. One-armed bartender, muscled to make up for the lack. Three men at the bar, in workers’ coveralls, done in slate blue. They weren’t crisp and neat anymore, but nothing was. The tables were half-empty; two occupied deuces, an old plastic picnic table with a party of six, a tall single in the corner at a table for four.
No one looked undead. Not particularly alive, either, but no one these days was. They were all just surviving.
“Clear,” he called back over his shoulder. He slung the machine gun, cradling it against body armour that had started out desert brown five years ago. Now it had been blackened with whatever was at hand, and the tan showed through only at the edges.
As his three mates followed him inside, he went up to the bar. The floor oozed unpleasantly in a couple of spots, muck burbling up over a pallet that looked as new as anything did these days. The patch job wouldn’t last without cement bricks to support the wood up out of the wet, but that wasn’t Watson’s concern. By the time it rotted through, he and his mates would be long gone.
“You got trade?” the barkeep asked as he came over to Watson. He leaned his one arm on the bar; it shook ominously. He tried not to look intimidated by the four soldiers. He failed.
They could’ve taken everything. No one was armed with anything that would get through their body armour, once they dropped the faceplates on their helmets, and Watson could patch up any incidental wounds. They had more to fear from the swamp where the bar was built than any of the men inside.
Watson put down two watch batteries, still shiny silver, still in the old blister packs. The French writing on the package was impossible to read; all the dye had faded from the sun. He’d picked up a hundred of them three weeks back, before they’d headed into the Tunnel.
The barkeep nodded. He swept up the batteries and said, “Sit. You’re taking up space.”
Hiding a grin, Watson quirked a brow at their de facto commanding officer — not that chain of command meant shit anymore. With a snort, Sev turned and headed for a table near the single. It was a table for six, which meant they could put their packs down, away from the floor.
They arranged themselves to cover all sides out of habit. They hadn’t seen any of the Risen for two and a half days, but it paid to not take chances. The fucking Tunnel had been packed, and they’d expended half their ammo fighting through, though they’d lost Shark anyway. Watson had held him off with the crowbar at his belt long enough for Porter to saw through Shark’s spine and drop the new-Risen.
“Not the Ritz,” Sev murmured.
Watson kicked him under the table. Porter let out a huff of amusement. Cray looked confused.
“Christ. You’re too young,” Sev said dismissively. He looked across at Watson. “We should check it out.”
“Don’t be an arse, Commander,” Watson said. “Probably looted in the first days.”
The bartender came around with four mason jars that held what looked like it might be beer. The soldiers had long since stopped being picky, though Sev still bitched at every chance, just cause none of them had the rank to shut him the fuck up.
When the bartender was gone, they picked up the jars. Quietly, Sev said, “Shark.”
“Mickey,” Watson said.
“Ed.” Cray nodded.
“Goldman,” Porter finished.
The list could have gone on. Once, it did, until they realised there were too many dead. The night Drake ate a bullet, they changed their tradition. One survivor, one memory.
Together, the four survivors drank to their dead.
When the soldiers came in, Sherlock moved his hands from his chipped ceramic mug to the pockets of his ragged greatcoat. He had two compact pistols hidden away, though he hoped he wouldn’t have to use them. There wasn’t much ammunition left in the world, and it would be a losing battle. The soldiers were too well-armed, too well-armoured. Too competent.
The one who entered wasn’t their leader. Second in command, perhaps, since he made the decision to call the others in, rather than going back outside to report.
No, the leader was slightly taller than the first one, eyes hidden behind sunglasses. Not as broad-shouldered as one of the others, but broader than the first one. Big hands meant for killing. He was a walking armoury: machine gun slung across his chest, shotgun over his back, two pistols, knife that could double as a parrying sword. Sherlock didn’t doubt that he had even more weapons hidden away.
The second in command was more lithe, or as lithe as could be, in body armour. He carried the same model machine gun as the first, but only had one pistol and a crowbar for backup weapons, at least openly. His black-dyed uniform shirt had a square of loose threads where he’d ripped off a patch — a perfect square, not a rectangle that might be an old nation’s flag.
The third was as tall as the leader and qualified as skinny even with the body armour. From what Sherlock could see of his shadowed face and narrow chin, he looked young and fine-boned. Not a typical soldier; Sherlock would have guessed him to be in a support role, though he’d obviously been quick to master combat skills. He had a dark beard growing in, probably to add to his age. He was too pretty to be walking around unarmed and unescorted, these days. Just looking at him made Sherlock uncomfortable with his own appearance. He’d had one too many close calls himself.
The fourth was tall, with hawk-sharp eyes and a dark five o’clock shadow. There was something regally composed about him despite the squalid surroundings. His machine gun was accompanied by a hatchet on his belt and a length of pipe across his back, with a makeshift handle of padded tape. His voice, when he spoke a single word, was a deep rumble, too soft for Sherlock to properly hear.
Slowly, Sherlock eased back in his seat and allowed his attention to return to watching the door. The four soldiers didn’t seem likely to cause trouble just yet. If they did, there was a chance that they might respect the identification badge Mycroft had insisted he carry. They didn’t have the feral, magpie-like look of looters about them. For all the alterations to their uniforms, they seemed neat enough and well-disciplined, capable of fending off trouble without the need to stir up excitement of their own.
The food had what looked like meat in it. Watson speared a piece with the fork taken from his mess kit and teased the fibres apart before he nodded. “Looks clean,” he said very quietly to the others, and bit it off his fork. It tasted gamey and tough, like it had been dried and then boiled for too long, but it was meat. They’d been living on emergency rations for the last four days.
They ate in comfortable silence. They’d already long since said everything they had to say. Occasionally, they might reminisce, to fix in their minds some treasured memory so they could recapture the details, but they passed most days in silence.
The food wasn’t good, but it was hot and filling. Watson wondered how the barkeep could find or barter for the fuel to keep it heated. He hadn’t seen any sign of a solar rig or reflectors when he’d scouted the shack.
When the curtain at the entryway rustled, all four soldiers looked up. The skin on Watson’s neck crawled, but he kept his eyes fixed to the back of the shack, just in case the curtain’s movement was a distraction. Across the table, Sev and Porter sat up abruptly, and Sev’s hand shifted under the table.
Shit, shit, Watson thought, leaning back in his chair. “Think it’ll rain tomorrow?” he asked Sev in a code that had nothing to do with the weather.
“It’s likely to start right the fuck now,” Sev said in a low, dangerously cold voice.
Watson twisted in his seat and saw a man had entered and gone to the bar, followed by a bodyguard and two small, pretty captives — one male, one female. The bodyguard could’ve been one of their squad, though he had legit urban camo rather than makeshift. His visor was down, but he was turned to face their table.
The barkeep was leaning over the bar, talking in quick, quiet tones to the first man. Watson didn’t know if he was negotiating as a buyer or business partner — not that he actually gave a damn. By not throwing the slaver out, the barkeep had signed his own death warrant.
Then their view was abruptly blocked as a tall, gangly bloke in a coat like flapping bat wings put himself in the line of fire. The one from the corner table, Watson identified. He was filthy and scruffy, but he looked like the type that would clean up too nicely for his own good, just like Cray.
“Mind if I join you?” he asked. Probably wanted protection, Watson figured, which was fine by him.
Sev, who was just as overprotective as Watson, told him, “Sit.” He pointed to the seat at the end of the table, between himself and Watson — and out of the line of fire.
The tall bloke gave a smile that didn’t reach his eyes — and what the fuck colour were his eyes, anyway? Something like blue or teal or silver all at once. God, those eyes would add to his price. Damn unlucky for him. Watson had no idea why he wasn’t hiding them with sunglasses.
Under the table, a foot tapped his, twice. The tall bloke came around and sat as Watson gave Sev a quick nod. He passed the signal to Cray, who covered his own nod by taking a drink of weak beer.
Plan B, Watson thought, flexing his shoulders. He always did love a good brawl.
They were going to do something. Sherlock knew it; he could feel the sudden tension crackling through the air around them, even if they appeared credibly relaxed and at-ease. But what were they going to do? This was a disaster in the making. God, why did all soldiers have to think with their damned guns?
Sherlock leaned over to talk to the one who was in charge, thinking he could put a stop to any pending violence with a few choice words, but he hadn’t realised how quickly they’d move..
“I got it,” the second-in-command said as the two lower-ranked ones went to rise. The leader took advantage of the distraction to push his chair back two critical inches, giving him the room to stand unimpeded later.
Everyone subsided back into their seats, and now they’d all adjusted their machine guns to be more easily grasped. Sherlock grudgingly admitted that they were good. Used to working together. And — aha. The second-in-command palmed something as he fished around in his backpack.
“You have a name?” the leader asked, turning in Sherlock’s direction. He still wore his sunglasses, a not-uncommon affectation these days.
“Victor,” Sherlock answered, giving his most common cover identity.
“Seven. Porter. Cray,” he said, indicating himself, the dark-skinned one, and the skinny one across the table. Then he nodded over towards the bar and added, “3C.”
“Hey,” Porter said, giving him a nod. When he turned to watch their second-in-command, Cray looked at Sherlock with a nod of his own.
They really were good. They seemed casual and comfortable, but they never left their fourth, 3C — and what the hell kind of name was that? — without someone watching his back.
“Hey. A little service here?” 3C called, rapping his knuckles on the bar, holding up another watch battery, similar to the ones he’d paid with earlier. He was on the other side of the three workers in coveralls, well away from Sherlock’s target. Perhaps he’d misread their intentions?
The bartender looked over and opened his mouth to shout a response. His small eyes all but disappeared under his frowning brows.
3C dropped the hand holding the battery. His other hand came up, now holding the pistol that had been holstered at his left hip, and he aimed it at the bartender.
The three workers backed away. Two of them kept hold of their glasses, either intentionally or by accident. All three went for the door — along with everyone else in the bar — and everything happened at once.
Under cover of the three fleeing workers, Cray moved, striking like a snake unexpectedly uncoiling from the shadow. He had a long knife, and was heading right for the bodyguard, a man who Sherlock thought was named Moran, but he wasn’t positive; he’d never been seen without his helmet’s face shield in place.
A gunshot at Sherlock’s right made him flinch in surprise. Seven had fired one perfect shot at the bodyguard’s right shoulder. The bullet impacted an instant before Cray did, fouling the bodyguard’s shot. Three bullets passed a good inch to Sherlock’s left, crashing through the corrugated tin wall of the bar, shredding it like tissue paper.
The gunfire was loud now, with Porter and Seven firing cautiously on Moriarty, who’d pulled one of the slaves in front of him as a shield. Silently cursing the bloodthirsty idiocy of overtrained post-Rising soldiers, Sherlock ducked behind Seven — no sense not taking advantage of his body armour — and wondered how the hell he was going to explain this to Mycroft.
Watson’s first shot took out the bartender. His second clipped the slaver, but the man was ducking out of sight. Worse, he had hold of one of the slaves, and had a pistol leveled at Watson. Diving for cover, Watson snapped his face shield into place and duck-walked along the side of the bar, keeping out of sight. He heard other shots at his back, including a three-shot burst of automatic fire that had to come from the slaver’s bodyguards; none of Sev’s soldiers were about to rip off like that and waste ammo.
Trusting the others to keep the slaver occupied, Watson circled the end of the bar and ran in a crouch, rising three steps later, when he guessed his angle had changed.
The slaver was protected from forward-fire; the slave looked unharmed. Watson fired without hesitation, putting a round high into the slaver’s shoulder, making him shriek in pain and surprise. Grinning fiercely, Watson vaulted up onto the bar so he could fire a second shot, this one tearing through the arm holding the slave. They fell apart, and Watson barked at the girl, “Get to cover! don’t run!”
The girl bolted. Watson didn’t turn to watch. The slaver was raising the gun in his good right hand, turning to shoot Watson at point-blank.
Someone — Sev, probably — turned his hand into shredded meat with a perfectly placed round.
Trusting that the slaver was incapacitated, Watson looked to the bodyguard. His black and white urban camo had turned black and red, and Cray was twisting his knife to work it out from under the dead man’s unprotected jaw.
“Clear!” Watson yelled, and heard three identical responses. The civilians had cleared out — all but the tall bloke who’d come to them for protection. Porter, Watson saw, had the other slave against the wall, shielded by Porter’s bulk and body armour.
Watson hopped down and looked at the slaver. Sev came up next to him, followed by their civilian. Reaching up, Sev removed his sunglasses. His light blue eyes were cold.
Backing away, Watson took hold of the civilian’s sleeve. “Get out while you —”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” the civilian snapped, jerking his hand free. He reached under his coat.
Instinctively, Watson raised the pistol still in his hand. The civilian stilled for a moment. Then, with exaggerated movements, he pinched the lapel of his overcoat between two long, pale fingers and drew the fabric aside. Underneath, he wore the remains of what had once been a nice black suit with a dark purple shirt.
“I’m Secret Service,” the civilian said, slowly lifting a thin black wallet out of the inside pocket.
Sev twitched in surprise. “3C —”
A bit reluctantly, Watson moved to cover their prisoner. His heart pounded. Secret Service meant the government might still exist, in some form — or the tall bloke had found a body, dead or Risen, and stole the warrant. He didn’t dare let himself hope too much. Anarchy sat poorly with all of them. They were soldiers, not mercenaries, but the chain of command, outside their ragtag section, had fallen to shit almost four years ago.
Movement at his feet made him focus his attention on the slaver. Watson gave him a hard kick in the side of the knee and resisted the urge to waste another bullet. “You’re not bleeding out yet, so stop whinging.”
“You’re making —”
“A big mistake, yeah. Heard it all before.” This time, the kick probably broke the two short ribs on the slaver’s left side. Once, back when Watson had been a proper doctor, he would’ve felt sick doing this to an injured man. That was before he’d seen the worst of his fellow humans.
Some days, he thought the Risen were more human than the survivors were.
“It looks real,” Seven said.
“Of course it’s real,” Sherlock snapped. “If you’re actual British soldiers, you’ll honour that warrant. If not, you’ll take what you want, get out, and leave me to my work.”
Somewhat smugly, he answered, “Classified.”
Anger flashed in Seven’s eyes — a very clear, hard blue, Sherlock noted. “Try again,” Seven warned, subtle enough that he didn’t openly reach for any of his weapons.
Sherlock ignored the implicit threat. Instead, he looked from one soldier to the other. Porter had protected the slave who’d been left unattended. Now, he and Cray were both searching the dead bodyguard — dispatched very efficiently by Cray’s knife. They might’ve just been looting the body, but Sherlock suspected they were looking for the wrench that would unbolt the shackles on the two slaves.
And they’d kept Moriarty alive. Why? The placement of their shots had been intentional — incapacitating and painful, yes, but not fatal.
They could be preparing to interrogate Moriarty, to find out where he kept his wealth — trade goods, supplies, and slaves, of course. These days, money had no value. These days, even precious metals were often abandoned by travelers who needed room for more water, rations, or weapons.
Finally, Sherlock made his decision. Mycroft would hate him, but he had so few opportunities to irritate Mycroft — at least ones that didn’t involve reanimated body parts left in strategic desk drawers at Thames House II.
“I’m not authorised to answer,” Sherlock said, “but I can take you to someone who is. Just keep Moriarty alive.”
“Does he have other slaves?” 3C asked, turning a bit, though he didn’t quite look away from his captive.
“Quite a few. And they’re well-guarded.”
“Well. That’s all right, then,” 3C said, and it sounded like he was grinning. “Care to play at being the white knights, Commander?”
“Delighted,” Seven said. He shoved the warrant back at Sherlock and barked out, “Let’s move. Cray, help 3C with the prisoner. Porter, are our guests staying with us?”
Sherlock turned and saw that they’d unshackled the slaves. Cray threw one set of chains to 3C, who holstered his pistol and crouched beside Moriarty. “They have information we need,” Sherlock protested when Porter held open the curtain and gestured the slaves out of the bar.
“They’re free to go,” Seven said in a warning tone.
Sherlock considered protesting, but he gritted his teeth and let the two run. He had Moriarty. That would suffice.
Watson breathed a sigh of relief when the tall bloke gave off protesting. They weren’t about to shoot a civilian, but Sev wasn’t above giving him a good crack in the skull to silence him. Once Watson had their prisoner secured with his own shackles, he called Cray over. “Keep watch,” he said, indicating both their prisoner and the tall troublemaker.
Cray nodded and walked over to the prisoner. He looked in Sev’s direction as though tempted to say something, but in the end, he stayed silent.
“Sir.” The formality was unusual in their group, but it caught Sev’s attention. Sev nodded and gestured Watson out of the bar.
One good thing came with the virus that destroyed civilisation: lots of fresh air and water, these days. Watson took a deep breath and climbed up the embankment to the crumbling road. Potholes were forming everywhere, tilting some of the abandoned, looted cars on their flat tyres.
“If he’s right,” Watson started.
“If it’s a trap?” Sev countered.
Watson shrugged. “When has any of this shit been safe, the last five years?”
Sev looked back, and Watson knew he was thinking of Cray. The thing between them was serious — as serious as it had been for Watson and Mary, only look where that had ended up. They were all going to die. They knew it, and they knew it would come sooner rather than later. It was just a matter of when, where, and how.
“We can check it out,” Watson offered. “If it’s bullshit, we move on. Head to Skyfall.”
Sev took a deep breath and turned his face up to the overcast sky. “Be good if it’s real, though.”
“That was my thought.”
“I’ll send him out to you,” Sev finally said. “If it’s bullshit —”
Watson grinned. “Bloke that skinny, I won’t even need the crowbar.”
Sev snorted a laugh and picked his way back down the embankment to the murky shack. Watson kept an eye on his surroundings, looking for signs of Risen. London had a fair population of living, but that just meant there were more people to infect. It was the empty areas that were generally the safest, but even in the dead zones, they’d been surprised once or twice.
Their pet civilian came out quietly. He walked up the muddy wooden ramp, scratching at his beard, brows drawn in an unhappy frown. “You’re going somewhere — the four of you. You have a goal.”
Had Cray and Porter let him eavesdrop? “How do —”
“All four of you are in desert-issued gear. You were stationed a quarter of the way around the world, and yet you walked back to England. You came through the Tunnel, which implies a level of urgency. There isn’t a boat to be found for a thousand miles — not one that your commanding officer would trust, given his experience in the Royal Navy.”
“How the fuck —”
“One Royal Army, two SAS, one Royal Navy. Subtle differences in your uniforms. You” — Sherlock ignored Sev’s shocked, dangerous look and nodded at Watson — “you were a combat medic. RAMC?”
“Christ,” Watson muttered. He went back to surveying the surroundings, hands gripping his SA80 a little more tightly. “All right — What’s your name again?”
“Sherlock. Sherlock Holmes.”
That wasn’t the name Watson had heard earlier, though admittedly he hadn’t been paying much attention. Still, he put out a hand, and Sherlock clasped it with long, cool fingers, free of calluses or scars. Despite the scruffy beard, his hands were clean under the nails. He lived soft, or at least comfortably.
“So how did —”
“Why are you —”
They both cut off, glancing at each other. Sherlock gestured for Watson to continue.
“How did you know? About us?”
“Your uniforms, as I said. You —” Sherlock tapped Watson’s arm, where he’d ripped off the red cross badge. “Square badge of a medic. You took the first aid supplies, rather than distributing them, which means you’ve checked their kits and are satisfied they all carry sufficient emergency supplies — or you’d rather hoard the supplies for yourself, but that’s not you. You’re too cautious with their lives. Your placement of the bullets, when you shot Moriarty, was precise, avoiding any substantial risk of him bleeding out. You have the small, steady hands of a surgeon — minimal scarring shows that you’re careful not to risk your fingers.”
Watson couldn’t help but laugh — a rusty sound of genuine humor, rather than resignation to an unwanted fate. He hadn’t truly laughed in months, since their comm specialist, Mary Morstan, had fallen to a swarm somewhere in the old East Bloc states.
Sherlock grinned as if delighted by the sound. He leaned in close and asked, “Want to know how I identified the others?”
“You really didn’t... I dunno, look at our files or something? If you’re really government —”
“That’s ridiculous. How would I know a mixed group like you lot would show up precisely at the same bar where my target planned to meet with a buyer?”
Watson grinned and almost said he was right, but then he looked up, searching Sherlock’s face. He was damned good looking, or would be if he got rid of the scruffy beard, and Watson’s thoughts took a very inappropriate turn, given that he was practically a complete stranger.
“Why do I get the feeling that if anyone could predict that, it’d be you?”
Sherlock blinked in surprise. Then he smiled almost shyly. “You’d be right.”
“Could be useful,” Watson hinted. If things didn’t work out with this so-called British Government, he wouldn’t mind having Sherlock around. If nothing else, he didn’t seem boring.
Sherlock’s eyes lit up at the implication. “Want to find out?”