John reached the end of the bar and turned. Sweat trickled down the back of his neck to soak into the damp collar of his shirt as he started the slow progress back.
It was harder this way. The bar on his left forced him to support himself on his weaker, trembling arm, the one with a bullet still embedded in the collarbone. Forced him to support himself on his leg, because his shoulder actually couldn’t take his weight.
He’d refused the painkillers this morning. His shoulder was nearly better at this point—range still a little restricted, a little stiffer and a fair bit weaker than the other, the fine motor control in his fingers still unreliable. It wasn’t anything that would make him risk the long term side effects of opiates or anti-inflammatories. He’d been taking them for the leg, not that they’d ever helped.
John planted his right foot again, in front, and spent a moment bracing himself, adjusting his slippery grip. He caught sight of his own pale face in the mirror, and looked grimly away. This was pathetic, it wasn’t even exercise. It was just walking, and walking while holding a handrail at that. Of course the painkillers hadn’t helped. There was nothing wrong with his leg.
He pivoted, and looked back down the rail. The easier way again. Technically. But at this point, even his right arm was starting to shake with the exhaustion of supporting his body. People underestimated the dead weight of a human being, the knock-on effect that taking out just one muscle or limb had, the strain it put on other muscles as they tried to compensate and do a job they were ill positioned for, the way it turned every tiny movement slow and laborious, how quickly the whole body became exhausted.
He’d thought the leg had been getting better. Assumed that it had to be getting better, because that was the way muscles worked: you gave them time, the fibres reconnected, and then you pushed within their limits to build up strength again. The shoulder was getting better, and that had actually been hit by a bullet. He hadn’t even noticed the leg until he’d woken up in a field hospital to the news that he was going home. Hadn’t noticed until after the raging fever that had held him captive for three days had capitulated to antibiotics, until the catheter was out, until he’d been allowed up to use the bathroom—until his right leg had unexpectedly refused to hold his weight, buckled, and he’d ended up on the floor.
He’d fallen again yesterday, the leg folding up unexpectedly underneath him, making him tangle with his cane and overbalance. Unfortunately a nurse had spotted him on the floor before he managed to lever himself back into bed. He’d spent the rest of the day being fussed over, checked for concussion even though his head hadn’t gone near the ground, and generally treated like an idiot who hadn’t competed twelve years of medical training. The nurses left his cane out of reach of his bed, now, so that he had to buzz for assistance every time he wanted to get up, had to put up with them staying with him to cluck and coo and encourage and patronise him every humiliating step of the way to the bathroom. Had to accept a wheelchair as his only way down to the gym this morning, and last night’s meal on a tray in bed. Even the dinner lady, who almost certainly didn’t deserve the foul mouthed diatribe he’d let loose the moment she was out of earshot, had taken one look at his shaking left hand and given him an extra serving of dessert on his tray along with a cup of tea that was barely warm.
And then there’d been last night’s dream.
John pivoted again, standing on his good leg and dragging himself around by the bar, staring down the short length of mirrored wall as he’d once stared down terrorist insurgents with an eight year old hostage. No mercy.
When the morning had finally come, he’d known. Just known. The last few weeks’ dawning suspicions, the patient and well-hidden puzzlement of his physio over how much pain a second-degree tear to the vastus medialis could still be giving John almost two months after the fact. The scan she’d suggested to confirm the initial diagnosis, which had been clear of any evidence of injury. The variable reactions of his leg to tests and drugs and changing circumstances… It had all fallen into place with an undeniable certainty.
John bit down a gasp of pain as he slowly levered his right foot forward again. Pain was a reaction of the mind to a stimulus it didn’t want repeated, an unpleasant response to an urgent message from the body saying “Don’t do that again!” Pain was a signal to stop, so that you didn’t injure yourself even more. But sometimes the mind didn’t get things right.
There was nothing wrong with John’s leg.
There was something wrong with his mind.
Taking a deep breath, John turned again, and set his jaw.
He’d done his assigned exercises already, as soon as he arrived in the gym: the gruelling ones to build his shoulder, which was getting noticeably stronger every day now the immobiliser was off, and the ones to maintain the rest of his muscle tone in the absence of normal movement. Even the paltry knee extensions that his physio thought he should be able to handle without hurting himself, but in fact burned like fire. He wasn’t supposed to be doing more. Wasn’t supposed to push into the pain. John wasn’t just injured, he was crippled. An invalid. That’s why he’d been invalided out, after all. No longer Captain John Watson. Or even Doctor John Watson.
Maybe he wasn't John Watson at all, anymore.
When he told his primary physio—and he was going to have to tell her—that he was fairly certain the leg pain had to be psychosomatic…
When he told her…
When she looked back at him, and didn’t disagree…
At least he wasn’t long to stay in this hospital now his shoulder was getting better. Not much longer, dealing with the looks. The sympathy. The pity, for poor, broken John, who used to be so many things.
He turned again. Started back again. Today, he wasn’t going to stop. Not until his leg worked properly again.
He would be discharged soon. Against medical advice, if necessary. On his own medical advice. Rehabilitation beds were in too short supply to treat psychological problems. Wounds that might never heal, because they weren’t made in flesh and bone. And he had nearly reached the point of being able to care for himself. Admittedly, showers were going to be tricky. And if he couldn’t get the leg working, there were going to be a lot of meals consisting of only toast in his future. Balancing on one leg to cook anything more complicated while fighting an uncontrollable tremor in his dominant hand was… unwise. Even making a cup of tea would be a risk, damn the dinner lady and her lukewarm beverages. Getting takeaway home-delivered wasn’t a long-term option on an Army pension, either. Neither was London, unless he went to Harry for help. But that wasn’t going to happen.
This morning, he’d finally thrown out the deceased remains of the flowers she’d brought him, as though a battered bunch of Sainsbury’s daisies would cover the smell of alcohol on her breath. He’d taken the expensive phone she’d pressed on him because he needed it, and because she’d insisted she didn’t use it since she’d bought a newer one, but it had cost him a great deal of pride not to throw it at her during the subsequent argument. She’d always been a vicious drunk. Frankly, John was surprised she and Clara had lasted as long as they had. John wouldn’t last six hours in the same house as Harry, let alone six years.
He was going to make the leg work. Whatever it took. However many bloody times he had to go back and forth up this rail, until he convinced it. He was going to keep walking until the fact that he was walking made it through his damned, stupid, broken head. Until it came to terms with the fact that John Watson had never been a quitter. Would never be a quitter. Even if the war was gone, his life was gone, and the only battle he had left was…
The knee buckled, but John was ready for it, grabbing the rail with both hands and supporting his weight while he got his feet underneath him again. His uninjured shoulder burned and trembled with exhaustion and the effort of supporting his full weight at the awkward angle, his good leg weak and shaky from doing the work of both.
He gripped the bar and eased himself down the wall, doing his very best not to be sick right there on the floor, panting through his nose and clenching his jaw against the convulsions that were trying to take hold in his chest and the back of his throat.
John wasn’t going to give in to this. It wasn’t going to beat him.
The stockinged legs and sensible shoes of a nurse appeared beside him, but John didn’t look up, childishly playing the game of I-can’t-see-you-so-you-can’t-see-me in the ridiculous hope that she might just move on. He didn’t want sympathy. He didn’t want anything.
“Are you all right, love?” asked Beth. Of course, it had to be her who’d come to check on him. She’d probably been keeping half an eye on him all morning. “You’re looking a bit green around the gills. I’d better get you that wheelchair back up to bed, I think.”
“I’m fine,” said John through gritted teeth, glaring at her feet. “Just a brief rest, then I’ll be up and getting on with it.”
Beth had been friendly when she brought him down to the gym earlier, not as condescending as some. And she’d performed some of the less insulting among yesterday’s parade of cheerful hourly concussion checks, too. When she’d found out he was a doctor, she’d mentioned an upcoming exam she had for her Masters, and made a game out of making him quiz her on obscure pharmacology rather than peppering him with standard pop culture questions.
But right now everything from her tone to her shoelaces seemed to radiate pity.
“If you say so,” she said, dubiously. “Don’t push too hard, though, will you, John? You had a nasty fall yesterday. Make sure you’re giving your body time enough to—”
“Yes, thank you, nurse,” snapped John. “I’ll let you know if I need any more medical advice.” He tried, too late, to keep the acid out of his tone.
“Okay, Dr Watson,” she said reprovingly, but her voice was warm. Apparently she knew better than to take anything personally from a patient in pain. “Just remember you can always call me if you need to.”
“Thank you,” John managed, in a more normal voice: ashamed, and tinged with despair, but it was the best he could do. Perhaps that was going to be his normal voice from now on. “Beth. I’m sorry. I do appreciate it.”
She lingered for a moment, before walking away without another word. John did appreciate that. Even if there was no way he was going back to his room in a wheelchair, even if he had to drag himself by his elbows. Even if it took him all day.
John was going to try again, and he was going to keep on trying, as long as he needed to, until his leg worked.
He was going to stand up, and he was going to keep going.
It was just going to take a minute. Perhaps two. No more than that.
“Up you get, Watson,” ordered an impatient baritone, intruding on the self-loathing battle with trembling exhaustion and nausea. “Time to stretch out that leg, or it’ll be worse tomorrow. Afghanistan or Iraq?”
“What?” asked John, vertigo momentarily worsened by a burning flash of desert-heat-dust-gunfire-blood-purpose—
But that world didn’t belong in this place of pinstriped carpet tiles, beige walls populated by inoffensive pictures, and bulk-cooked food tainted by the ever-present taste of disinfectant in the air. That world didn’t belong to John at all anymore.
He looked up at the physiotherapist who’d taken Beth’s place, and found it was the new one with the cheekbones, who he’d never seen before today. He looked like he spent half an hour every morning getting his dark curls to sit just right—although at least he looked less earnest in his monogrammed polo shirt than the others, his gaze intent and entirely lacking in apologetic sympathy.
“Which was it, Afghanistan or Iraq?” he repeated, and grabbed John under the armpits without waiting for a response, leaning back as a counterweight so that John could lever himself up. “The shoulder wound.”
“Afghanistan,” said John stiffly and, with assistance, settled himself sideways on the weights bench. “But the shoulder’s progressing on schedule. Right now, I’m trying to focus on my leg.”
“I can see that, but the leg’s obvious.” The therapist picked up John’s foot and braced the arch against his inner thigh. Then he crossed his hands over the toes and leaned forward to stretch it out, making John gasp and grab his thigh as it blazed with pain. “Psychosomatic. You know that perfectly well; it wasn’t a tear, at least not in the muscle.”
John flushed, torn between the fire in his leg and the burn of the far too pertinent observation. The pain wasn’t even in the right place for a hamstring stretch. But he’d been trying to make the leg work the way it should. That was how he’d ended up on the floor in the first place.
“Nothing they can do here will help out the problem in your head,” the dark-haired man continued blithely, watching John’s face as he slowly pushed the stretch further and further. John had to grab the weights stand on his left for balance to maintain his seat. “You should stay here and keep them working on the shoulder, though, until you can make do without a nurse to look after you. If you stay with your drunkard sister, she’ll say it’s your fault every time she hits the bottle. Not that she hasn’t said that already.”
“Who are you?” gasped John, the edges of his vision beginning to white out from the pain. “And, if what you’re doing isn’t going to help my leg, then bloody let go!”
John didn’t wait for a response; he twisted out of the other man’s grip, making him overbalance, and then caught him in a finger lock that one of the SAS team he’d served with had shown him. He wasn’t feeling sick anymore. And he wasn’t shaking.
Around them, the rest of the patients kept their eyes down on their own exercises. The code of pretended privacy prevented anyone from watching too closely, and their position probably looked no more unusual than any genuine therapeutic stretch.
Even the madman John was holding captive hardly seemed to notice the awkward angle of his arm.
“No, no, no!” he cried, just softly enough to avoid drawing attention, his dark curls shifting as he shook his head in frustration. “You’re not the murderer! Your patient bled out when you were shot!” Then he paused, apparently considering something. “Have you noticed you’re holding your full weight on that leg, now? Try doing a couple of squats before you lose it.”
“Who are you?” John demanded again, pushing aside the realisation that he was right, and carefully increasing the pressure on the hyperextended joint. “You’re not a physiotherapist, I can tell you that.”
“DI Lestrade,” said the other man, leaning over almost backwards to ease the locked up joint and fishing the wallet with his police credentials out of his pocket with the other hand. He flashed it briefly in John’s direction, and tucked it away again. “Scotland Yard, Homicide and Serious Crimes.”
Somewhat reluctantly, John released him and stepped away, gripping the weights stand again for support as his leg abruptly remembered to ache. “John Watson,” he mumbled sullenly. “Sorry, I didn’t realise.”
“You’re an idiot,” said Lestrade and waved off John’s look of shock. “Don’t worry, almost everyone is. But…” he gave John a long, measuring look. “Mmmm. You’ll do. In the next few days, one of your fellow inmates—“
“Inmates?” protested John.
The madman—Detective Inspector Madman—looked around at the occupants of the dull room, each struggling with grim individual determination through pathetic exercises that took everything they had. This was no social gym populated by smiling women in shining hair and designer leotards, nor was it a military installation where the air was thick with testosterone and the jokingly serious competition that developed between men who might be depending on each other for their very lives at any moment. It wasn’t just John; all the people here were fighting against their own uncooperative bodies to regain some portion of what they’d once had—to manipulate a prosthetic limb, or to walk again when once they’d danced, or to build up the necessary strength to lift a spoon.
No-one, no-one at all, was here because they wanted to be.
“—inmates,” reiterated Lestrade, “is going to die.”
“Of what?” asked John. “No one here’s got anything terminal.”
“Cardiac arrest. Five men between the ages of thirty-four and forty-six have died suddenly from undiagnosed heart conditions in injury rehabilitation clinics across south-east England in the last two years, always in pairs. Statistically significant?”
John frowned at the clearly rhetorical question. “Sounds it. But pairs doesn’t make sense, you said five…”
“Isn’t it exciting?” Lestrade’s dark curls bounced again as he did a little pirouette on the spot, his face indecently aglow. “This centre had its first murder last week, we’re due for another any moment! Ask around at lunch what people remember about Quentin Morgan’s death. See if anyone’s suspicious!”
“Suspicious?” demanded John. “What do you mean—”
“Meet me afterwards,” the madman interrupted his protest. “B wing, room two two one.”
“Could be dangerous!” added Lestrade, giving him an ostentatious wink, and then slipped away and out of the gym entirely.
“—that’s my room,” John finished quietly. He looked around the gym for help, but no one seemed to have noticed anything strange about his encounter with the faux physiotherapist.
For a moment, John himself wondered whether it had been real. But however it had happened, he was on his feet again, right next to the bar. He reached out and grabbed it, looking down the length of the mirror again.
There were only ten more minutes before everyone would be hustled out of the gym towards the dining room.
At the other end of the bar was his cane, propped against the mirror; John’s only chance to make it there on foot rather than being ferried in a wheelchair. And apparently even a stranger could tell that the pain in his leg was all in his mind.
Perhaps that was progress.
Lunch was awkward.
Of course, it had always been awkward. Everyone was limp with exhaustion and nauseous with the effects of the little cups of pain medication that arrived after their first few bites of food. But the gentle passive aggressive insistence of the nursing staff meant that anyone even remotely capable of verticality had to be in the dining room for lunch and some enforced socialisation.
For the last week he’d been here, John had mostly been too miserable to do anything other than hunch over his plate and hope to god no-one tried to talk to him, as the slowly dawning reality of his leg came together for him. But now the cryptic comments of the eccentric police detective had caught his attention.
Was it possible that one of the people here would die, unless John helped him find the murderer in time?
He felt very uncomfortable with being asked to help investigate a possible crime. He wished he’d managed to get a better glance at Lestrade’s I.D., but… well, it couldn’t do any harm to ask a couple of questions about Quentin’s death, see what his fellow inma—patients, they were patients—had to say.
He would need to lead into it. He’d managed to catch most of the names, and fragments of their stories, just by being in the room, even while caught up in his own depressingly inexorable train of thought, but he barely knew these people. He couldn’t just start by asking flat out if anyone had thought anything suspicious about the death last week, when he had no idea who even might be the murderer.
Assuming there was a murderer. And that there’d even been a death last week. Assuming those things, he needed to be more subtle than that.
“Me?” said Gloria, unbending from her plate and coming to life a little at his question.
John had seated himself across from the slender dark-haired girl, making a pained joke about matching canes needing to stick together, and asked how she’d got here. Admittedly, perhaps John’s seating choice had more to do with the hot-pink two piece exercise outfit she was still sporting after the gym, but there was nothing wrong with appreciating a nice view.
It wasn’t like there was much else to look at in the room: three large tables with supportive chairs, a couple of recliners for those who weren’t up to sitting in those for a full meal, and a window with a view of an uninspiring December garden.
“Knee reconstruction,” said Gloria, and John nodded. He’d guessed it was an ACL reconstruction, from the positioning of the visible scars on her knee. “I’ve been working my way up in the corps of the Royal Ballet for years. I’d finally made understudy for the prima for Swan Lake, when…” She gestured helplessly downwards, tears welling in her eyes at the memory. “It just gave out. It was awful.”
“I’m sorry,” said John, his leg throbbing with agonising recognition of a single moment taking away everything that made life worthwhile. “I shouldn’t have asked.”
“No,” she said bravely, dashing the tears away, her dark pony-tail fanning over her shoulder as she shook her head, revealing silver streaks that belied her age. The strain of coming back from severe injury sucked years off anyone's life. “No, it’s okay, I don’t mind talking about it. It’s terrible bad luck, just on the edge of my dream, but I don't care about the setbacks, I’m not going to let anything take it away from me.”
“I’m glad to hear it,” said John in a bracing tone, and tactfully redirected to the large man sitting beside him. “What about you, Darren?”
Some sort of brain injury, as far as John had managed to work out from seeing his struggles in the gym, affecting his vision and coordination.
“Hah!” said Darren, blinking in an attempt to focus his eyes on John’s face and missing by a couple of inches. “Bathroom renovation gone bad. I ended up with a two inch nail in my brain, right here.” Here appeared to be back behind his left ear, almost at the edge of the cerebellum and heading up into the occipital lobe. “Ange’s still kicking herself for letting me try DIY, but saving a thousand quid seemed like a good bargain at the time,” he added ruefully.
Further down the table, Jenny said she’d got her spinal injury from a bus accident, Tahir had lingering right side body weakness after a hit from a cricket ball that had started a brain bleed, and Kenneth gestured to his walking cast and darkly said, “Lego car,” as though that said it all.
Maggie didn’t volunteer anything, remaining silently slumped at the end of the table poking at her lasagne. John had never heard the obese woman say anything except to snap bitterly, so he didn’t try to push through the closed body language. He could understand the desire to stay invisible.
When everyone else had spoken, John admitted that he’d heard one of the nurses mention a patient who’d died last week, and got an immediate response.
Quentin’s sudden death had been a shock to everyone. Apparently Gloria had actually fainted when she’d heard. Worst hit appeared to have been Darren, who’d been sharing a room with Quentin for the two weeks prior. It was clear he’d been quietly devastated by the loss of his roommate.
Quentin himself had been popular and well liked, apparently, by patients and staff alike. He’d been rehabilitating after being hit by a car while riding on his bike. John couldn’t get clear on exactly what his injuries had been, but if he’d been rooming with Darren on the third floor neural rehabilitation unit, then they must have included some kind of spinal or brain injury along with the crushed leg and extensive skin grafts the others mentioned. They said he’d always been positive and upbeat about his chances of learning to walk again, and joyfully victorious to have made it thus far, out of intensive care, out of the wards, and into a low-care rehabilitation unit.
At this point, Maggie spoke up for the first time. “He was exhausting,” she snapped. “Everyone thought so, even the staff. Constantly going on and on about how he was going to walk again—”
She looked around the room and scoffed at their shocked expressions, raised her tiny medication cup in a fuck-you toast and downed it, then resumed the listless dissection of her food.
John exchanged a significant glance with Gloria, touched a steadying hand to Darren’s shoulder, and then broke the awkward silence by asking Gloria to tell them more about life in the ballet.
She rattled on aimlessly for ten minutes about the long and arduous battle she’d had on her way towards the top of the Royal Ballet, and then Darren volunteered the somewhat more entertaining full story of the disastrous renovation that had led to his brain injury. Neither of them pushed John for more than the very abridged version he’d admitted to of the shooting that had sent him home from Afghanistan and, as it turned out, lunch hadn’t been as unpleasant as it had been when had been huddled over his meal as bitterly as Maggie.
He had a lot of time to think on his interminable hobble back from the dining room to his room afterwards: slow, painful step after slow, painful step. The more he thought about that lightning quick flash of the Detective Inspector’s I.D., the more it felt like a movement designed to prevent the thing from being looked at too closely, rather than one than to display it.
At least, if there really was a murderer on the loose, he had a weapon. The cane was light, but it was long and strong. If he could manage to stay upright, he would have the advantage of surprise if it came to a fight. He quickened his pace a little, the leg uncharacteristically cooperative as he hurried back towards his room.
Lestrade was waiting for John there as promised, sitting crouched in the easy chair in the corner of the room, arms wrapped around his knees, fingers steepled under his chin and staring off into space.
He leapt up at John’s entry, but barely glanced at him as he walked straight over—over, as in stepping onto and then down the other side—the padded footstool. He passed John, without speaking—still without even looking—and settled against the wall near the doorway, his gaze focussed out along the hallway as though watching for something.
John stood frozen in place, opening and closing his mouth at the rude brushoff.
“Aren’t you supposed to be looking for a murderer?” he asked, when it became clear the other man wasn’t just checking for something first, but apparently had no plans to speak to him at all.
“Oh, I am looking for the murderer,” said Lestrade, gaze fixed on the corridor out towards the lift, where John had just come from.
John frowned at his back, perplexed. Did he expect John to just ignore him? Go back to bed, or sit in the chair with his leg up, watching him in silence?
“Do you want to know what I found out at lunch?” prompted John. Although to be honest, he wasn’t planning to tell this man anything without further proof he had a right to be asking questions. Probably not even then.
“Not particularly,” said Lestrade absently. “But I suppose the extra data can’t do any harm.”
“Can’t do—“ John took a deep breath, and let it out again slowly. “You don’t want information at all!” he accused. “Not that I’d give it to you if you did! Why am I even here? Aside from the fact,” he added sarcastically, “that you're camping out in my room.”
Lestrade gave John a look of mild confusion over his shoulder. “Isn’t it obvious? There’s three of you here that fit the victim profile, clearly you were the best candidate. After you drew every eye in the room this morning, asking a few awkward questions will have pushed you straight to the top of the hit list.”
“Oh, don’t be like that. Serial killers are always hard. You can wait for them to make a mistake—or you can convince them to come to you. You weren’t just a doctor, you’re a soldier. I said ‘dangerous’ and here you are.”
“It’s my room!” hissed John, seething as the other man gave him a tolerant look over his shoulder that clearly implied they both knew that had nothing to do with John’s presence there. “There’s no way you’re with the police. Give me a proper look at that card.”
“Oh, are you still stuck on that, too?” The man extracted the I.D. and handed it backwards to John without looking. As John had suspected, the picture was of a greying man who looked nothing like the mop-haired madman in front of him. “The name’s Sherlock Holmes. I work with Lestrade as a consulting detective; I just pickpocket him when he’s being annoying.”
“I’m pretty sure it’s illegal to impersonate a police officer, Sherlock! And I’ve never heard of a… consulting detective.”
“That’s because I’m the only one in the world. I invented the job. When the police are out of their depth—which is always—they consult me.”
“The police don’t consult amateurs,” scoffed John. “Especially not crazy amateurs who put civilians—crippled civilians—in danger! Give me one reason why I shouldn’t report you!”
Sherlock gave him another glance over his shoulder, narrowing his eyes at John for a few seconds, and then apparently decided he wasn’t going to shut up without being given answers.
“Because you can’t take the chance I’m right about this murderer,” he said, returning his gaze to the corridor. “Just like I was right about you.”
“Like you were…” John stopped, unable to deny that. “How did you know those things you said to me?”
“I didn’t know,” said Sherlock dismissively. “I saw. Your haircut, the way you hold yourself, says military. But your interchange with the nurse who called you ‘Dr Watson’ says you’re used to instructing nurses, uncomfortable with the reversal. So Army doctor—obvious. Your face is tanned but no tan above the wrists. You’ve been abroad, but not sunbathing. The pain in your leg’s obviously really bad when you’re focussing on the exercises, but it’s variable. It gets much worse when you’re being conscious of the shoulder wound—you were barely using the rail with your good arm, by comparison—so it’s psychosomatic. That says the circumstances of the shoulder injury were traumatic. Wounded in action, then. Wounded in action, suntan—Afghanistan or Iraq.”
John opened his mouth to speak, but Sherlock apparently wasn’t finished.
“So how does a shoulder wound develop a psychological link to the leg? Clearly you’re not faking. You almost passed out from the pain when I put pressure on it to make sure, but you didn’t flinch away or have a flashback: that says it wasn’t torture or being pinned under something heavy. Well developed gun calluses, and you didn’t hesitate to fight back when you’d had enough, so you’re acclimatised to violence: that says it couldn’t be a reaction to a garden variety firefight. And despite deliberate provocation, you disabled me without trying to hurt me: that says strong moral principle. There’s the real injury then. It was never your leg: something happened to someone you were responsible for, something you can’t forget. But you were a doctor in a war zone, you’ve had patients die before, friends. What made this death traumatic enough that you’ve taken the wound on yourself? You could have saved him but didn’t. Not many ways to die of a leg wound, an infection’s too slow, but the femoral artery runs right under where you rub your leg when it hurts—easy. He was shot, you went to help, the next round hit you: he bled out.”
He’d rattled all this off easily, without looking, barely pausing for breath as if the moment that had taken everything from John was simply public property, there for anyone passing to see.
John took two breaths before he managed to say, “You said I knew it was psychosomatic.”
“The way you were pushing it this morning?” scoffed Sherlock. “Of course you know. Then there’s your sister.”
John narrowed his eyes at Sherlock’s back. “You made some uncalled-for remarks about her. How did you even know she existed?”
“Visitor’s log was my first port of call,” said the other man, unrepentant. “One Harry Watson visited you five nights ago, clearly a family member bringing you civilian clothes from storage—smell of mothballs, dead giveaway. Masculine name, but…”
He turned briefly and plucked something small and brownish-white from the outside of John’s sleeve, brandishing it in John’s face before letting it drop.
“Daisy petal. And there’s touches of pollen on your sleeve. Not one, several over time.” He turned a briefly intense stare on the set of drawers beside John’s bed, as though he could see something missing in the empty space atop them. “Your arm’s been brushing against a bunch of flowers at the side of your bed as you lever yourself out. They’re not here; after five days, I expect you’ve thrown them out. But only a woman brings flowers to a living war hero. Harry’s short for Harriet, then. Not your mother: a girl of that generation would more likely shorten it to ‘Hattie’. Not a wife, you’ve no wedding ring or tan line. Possibly an ex who kept the name because of children, or a cousin—but you’ve had one visitor in a week at a civilian hospital: unlikely you’ve got much family, at least not that you’re close to, so smart money’s on an alcoholic sister who used visiting you as her excuse of the day for being drunk.”
He over-enunciated the ‘k’ at the end of the word, but still didn’t glance at John, seemingly fully engrossed in watching the corridor.
“How,” said John, his head beginning to spin, “can you possibly know that she told me it was my fault she’d…”
“I’m familiar with the sibling dynamics of addiction.” There was a momentary edge to his tone, before it regained the previous brisk detachment. “Symmetrical water stains on the back and front of your shirt; only gets that pattern if it’s folded when the spill happens. Residual smell of vodka, almost stronger than the napthalene when I leaned in to help you up. That would have completely dissipated if it had been from before you put everything in mothballs and went to war, and they don’t serve alcohol here. Straight spirits, alcoholic’s choice. She couldn’t put the bottle down long enough to pack you a bag; of course she was drunk when she arrived. Then you argued. Obvious. You’re re-wearing the same clothes, to the point it makes you self-conscious judging by the signs you’ve tried to blot out that tiny spot of sauce on your trousers at least twice—but you haven’t asked her back to take your laundry. Her visit went badly enough that you’re resolved to do without her help. Not just passive aggression then but harsh words spoken, and every argument with an addict always comes back around to the same topic. You don't like her drinking; she's blaming you for it all. So, you were right after all.”
“I was right?” said John, reeling a little from the pace and ridiculous accuracy of the litany. “Right about what?”
“The police don’t consult amateurs.”
For a moment, John couldn’t say anything. “That… was amazing,” he managed, eventually.
“Do you think so?” Sherlock looked back at him again, apparently genuinely surprised at the compliment, as though it was a sentiment he’d never heard expressed over his incredible talent.
“Of course it was,” said John firmly. “You’re a complete dick, but it was extraordinary. Quite extraordinary.”
“Mmm,” said Sherlock. “Most people don’t get past the complete dick part.”
Then he grinned at John, his whole face lighting up, just as it had when he’d told John there was going to be another murder. John couldn’t help returning it in kind, before Sherlock went back to watching the corridor.
“So…” said John after a few moments. “There’s a murderer here.” And if he wasn’t entirely sure what his place was in events, he was no longer uncertain what he wanted it to be. He would have leapt at the chance to help this strange genius—even act as bait—if he’d been asked. Sherlock probably had an explanation for how he’d known that, too. The man was admittedly lacking in social graces—very lacking—but he had a genuine gift.
“Yes,” said Sherlock.
“And he’s likely to be targeting me.”
“Not at all,” said John with conviction. “What should I be watching out for?"
Sherlock looked at him, considering. “You’re a doctor,” he said. “Any good?”
“Very good,” said John, without undue modesty.
“Then you tell me. Scotland Yard won’t exhume the bodies without more evidence, and even the most recent victim was in the ground before I found out about him.” Sherlock made a noise of frustration in his throat. “All died of cardiac arrest while surrounded by medical staff, extensive attempts at resuscitation failed, no prior symptoms. All but one had an autopsy, no evidence of trauma or foul play, but the reports aren’t enough; I need to see the bodies!”
John hid a smirk at the man’s frustration, but thought for a moment. “Overdose of some kind of heart medication, maybe—beta blockers, or glycoside—but that should have been found at autopsy. And it’d be hard to get hold of in sufficient quantities for five murders. Even if the killer’s got a heart condition of their own, there’s only so many times they can play the lost pills card.”
“Hmmm,” agreed Sherlock. “Two of the autopsies specifically looked for a drug mix-up to rule out malpractice, and nothing was found. Go on.”
“Not an air embolism with five cardiac arrests in a row,” said John. “Could well be missed at autopsy, but just as likely to present as stroke or respiratory failure. But…” John was feeling a reckless urge to impress. “Well, if your killer’s got basic medical knowledge, the easiest would be an injection of potassium chloride. We used to joke about that being the perfect murder in medical school. Depolarises the cells, stops the heart from triggering a coordinated beat and sends it straight into asystole. It’s easy to obtain, works in minutes, and a stray needle mark could easily be overlooked, particularly in a hospital. And serum potassium keeps getting taken up by the cells even after death, so by the time an autopsy was performed it’d be completely undetectable.”
John flushed abruptly, aware that he’d just given a fluent defence of a lethal drug to a man who’d been considering him as a murder suspect earlier that same day, but Sherlock didn’t seem to find anything amiss with his response.
“Potassium,” he breathed. “Perfect.” He sighed at John’s even more alarmed look. “Oh, for god's sake. I’m not the killer.”
“Good,” said John. “Do people often assume you’re the murderer?”
“Now and then, yes,” he smirked back.
Given the man’s seemingly supernatural talent at seeing things he couldn’t possibly know, John could believe it. “So, are we looking for an Angel of Death then?” he asked. “One of the staff?” Christ, another Harold Shipman was the last thing they needed.
“The staff are clean,” Sherlock dismissed it. “Sordid affairs is about the worst of it between them; same at the other two clinics except for a drug-dealing scheme, they’re all disgustingly boring. But it doesn’t have to be a nurse. Anyone can get away with injecting something if they sound confident and look enough the part to pass a cursory glance. No one really looks at I.D.. Or uniforms. No, it’s a patient who’s been having a love affair with Dr Google, hopping around clinics getting treated for everything under the sun. Doesn’t like it when everyone’s talking about someone else’s injury, would rather they were talking about them, or at least something they did, unless I miss my guess.”
“Well, that’s not likely,” John snorted, and Sherlock gave him a sharp look. “But someone’s here because they like it?” he asked, the idea anathema.
Surely this was anyone’s idea of hell; the intrusive questions, the choking humiliation of having to ask for help for the simplest things, the smothering sympathy. The moment John could feasibly manage on his own, the very moment, he was checking himself out.
John had dealt with fakers before; probably more than his fair share. Life in a military camp didn’t always turn out to be to the taste of its inhabitants, and passing eval for their next mission sometimes less so. A number of the complaints that had come to him responded more consistently to bedside manner than to actual diagnostic criteria and, while John had made sure to flag those cases with the base psychologist, he’d never begrudged the cry for help for anything but what it was.
Perhaps it was little different here, even with the freedom awaiting each inmate upon their release. John wasn’t exactly expecting it to be easy, after all, even once he made it out of here. Presumably civilian life had other people who’d rather not be living it as well.
Sherlock was looking at him again, measuring. “So,” he said after a moment. “Did I get anything wrong?”
“Mm?” asked John, still running through the fellow patients he’d talked to, mentally flagging the ones without incisions marks or other visible proof of their stated medical history. Jenny: spinal injury, possible. Darren: brain injury, possible. Tahir and Gloria: no, obviously genuine. Maggie: nothing visible except the bad temper, definitely possible.
“About you,” said Sherlock. “It’s probabilities; there’s usually something.”
John leaned back against the wall behind him, looking up at the textured white ceiling tiles, studded with fire sprinklers and speakers, the curtain rail around the bed, examining them as though he hadn’t done the same in every possible detail on every previous sleepless night.
He didn’t have to say anything at all. It wouldn’t help catch a murderer, and he didn’t owe this crazy genius the truth about his life. He didn’t owe him anything.
“My sister did blame me for the fact that she’d turned up drunk,” he said eventually. “And I had worked out about my leg, just this morning. You were right about how the shooting happened, too. The patient I went to help had been hit in the femoral artery. Same gunman who got me, as far as we could work out.”
“Spot on, then,” said Sherlock, looking pleased. “I didn’t expect to be right about everything.”
“But he didn’t bleed out,” said John, staring down at his own leg, unseeing, and propped his cane against the wall between himself and Sherlock, as far away as he could put it and still reach it. The wall could support him for now.
He considered whether to explain further, but there was something about Sherlock’s complete lack of sympathy that made words he’d never spoken to his assigned psychologist feel easy.
“People think you’d know if you’d been shot,” he said. “But you don’t, not always. I’ve had soldiers walk into a field hospital, drenched in blood, no idea they were nearly dead. I was busy; it was chaotic; I’d leant over Bill to protect him from flying debris. The bullet ripped the rotator cuff, tore through the brachial plexus nerves, lodged in the clavicle—but at the time I didn’t think much of something hitting me, except to be glad whatever it was hadn’t landed on Bill. I finished tightening the tourniquet before I realised something was very wrong with me.”
“He lost the leg, then?” said Sherlock, although he didn’t sound certain. “Because you couldn’t loosen it again?”
John could see the other man frowning at him from out of the corner of his eye, and rubbed at his stinging thigh with one hand.
“Brains are funny things,” he shrugged. “Bill lived; actually ended up dragging me to safety. And he kept his leg. Even stayed in Afghanistan.” He shrugged again and glanced at Sherlock, then quickly away. “I guess in a way I took that bullet for him, too.”
“You took the bullet for him,” said Sherlock, in a tone of dawning realisation.
“Look,” said John, “did you actually want the information I got at lunch, or were you only aiming to paint a massive target on my back?”
“Of course,” muttered Sherlock through his teeth. “The doctor isn’t limping. It’s the soldier.”
John let that pass, and repeated the information about all his fellow patients he’d got to know at lunch time, whether Sherlock wanted it or not.
“Mm, it’s a pity you’ve missed everything of importance,” said Sherlock, when he was finished.
“Oh, thanks,” said John without particular rancour. He was getting used to Sherlock’s manner of speaking.
“Almost all the other patients hated Quentin Morgan and his enthusiasm for everything, even if the staff thought he was the second coming. Everyone flatters the dead, but that level of praise means they’re clearly overcompensating for wishing him ill. Maggie Grissom’s the only one on edge enough to say it out loud, because she’s recovering from opiate dependence. Notice the way she watches everyone taking their medication? No oxycodone in her medicine cup, despite clearly severe pain. If she could pass muster as a nurse she’d head straight for the pharmaceuticals rather than the other patients. It’s impossible to fake Tahir’s facial drooping, and I used a pin earlier in the gym to confirm Jenny’s paraplegia; neither of them could conceivably pass themselves off as a nurse. Darren’s an obvious suspect—cortical blindness means it would be easy to pretend he could see less than he could—but his vision is even worse than he’s letting on; he pretends to recognise people, can get around okay as long as he’s not thinking about it, but the moment he tries to look at something directly he falls to pieces. There’s no way he could manage to load and administer a hypodermic. Kenneth’s room is wallpapered with hand-drawn pictures from his children, only one of which features his broken leg. Clearly he doesn’t have the right psychology for a sympathy-seeker.”
“That’s incredible!” breathed John, fascinated by the way this man’s mind worked, and Sherlock gave him a sharp look. “So none of them are the murderer, then? Well, given you didn’t tell me who to look for, I guess I didn’t sit at the right table. The other tables mostly had patients in at least their seventies, though, but I suppose it's possible. Or it could be someone confined to their room?”
“Didn’t you mention someone else at that table?” asked Sherlock dryly. “Gloria Plunket gave me the story about the Royal Ballet, too, but I didn’t believe her. She gave up too easily, just like she gives up on her exercises.”
“She doesn’t give up! She’s been working herself really hard!” John denied it. “You wouldn’t have seen it, because the nurses have been making her take it easy since, but she burst into tears from exhaustion on Monday, poor thing. This is actually her second knee reconstruction; she took a bad step when she was nearly recovered from the last one, and tore it all open again. She’s starting to think she might never be able to go back to ballet!”
Sherlock frowned at him. “She told you that today? What did you tell her about yourself?”
“Well,” said John, wrongfooted. “I was sitting across from her, half the things I said were to her. I said I was a medical doctor, and I’d been shot. That I was almost recovered; expected to be discharged within a day or two. She seemed quite taken with me, actually,” he said, a little bit smug at the memory. Apparently Three Continents Watson was still in there after all. “Gave me her mobile number, asked if I’d keep visiting her once I was out.”
Sherlock looked scathing at the thought, but John wasn’t ashamed; she was a few years younger than him, but not nearly enough to be creepy.
“And what did you say?” he asked.
“Um…” said John, wondering if Sherlock had actually seen Gloria in the eye-catching two-piece she wore in the gym. The scars on her knee didn’t bother John—nor the ones on her stomach; John wasn’t exactly factory-perfect anymore either. Sherlock didn’t seem the squeamish type. Perhaps he was gay. “‘Yes’?”
“Oh, no,” said Sherlock, looking at him and then the clock on the wall with something akin to horror. “No, no, no. No wonder she's not here already. She’s not coming after you, she couldn’t fool you now. And you’re not taking the spotlight away from her—you’re another spotlight on her. Quick, who else did you talk to the most?”
“Er,” said John. “Darren? He’s still getting used to being mostly blind, so I tried to make sure I was verbally including…” he trailed off. “Sherlock, are you saying Gloria’s killing people? She’s not faking; the scars from the anterior cruciate reconstruction are definitely real.”
“Oh, I never said she was faking,” said Sherlock. “Obvious.” He held his fingers up beside his temples for a moment, eyes flickering lightning fast under closed lids as though he was dreaming. “Second floor, lift—“ he shook his head, as though dismissing a thought, “no, too slow. Nurse’s lounge, stairwell…” Then he went from standing still to a flat run in an instant. “Come on, John!”
“It’s not obvious to me!” John called after him as his brain caught up with where Sherlock was heading. He followed out the door, absently kicking someone’s abandoned walking stick out of the way as he sprinted out the door and up the hallway.
“The daydream about how she would have made it centre stage for the London Ballet if only,” sneered Sherlock over his shoulder, “but look at her posture, the way she holds her hands, her toes completely devoid of pointe calluses! No, she quit before her teens, didn’t like being another identical little girl, worked out she could get her father’s attention by making herself sick. Tore the knee on purpose, and not for the first time.”
Up ahead, Sherlock cornered abruptly and pushed through the staff-only door into the nurse’s tea room, swiftly followed by the sound of a crash and voices raised in protest.
John surged after him, seeing the scene as he burst through the door almost in frozen time: the tea service tray falling from the bench, the chair at the end of the table knocked over onto its side, Jessica and Owen, the floor’s duty nurses, staring at him in puzzled alarm over the paperwork they’d spread out on other end of the table, and Sherlock disappearing out the door on the far side of the room.
“Sorry,” said John, grabbing at the falling kettle and barely avoiding a scald from the cascade of boiling water. He managed to snatch a mixed fistful of teabags and sugar packets out of the air, and tried without much success to set them back on the bench without slowing down.
“Come on, John!” Sherlock’s voice floated back to him from up ahead. “We’re going to miss her!”
John gave up and threw the sugar packets at the back of the bench, letting the wreckage of the tea tray fall, jumping over the whole mess and hurdling the fallen chair to avoid losing momentum.
“Sorry!” he yelled back to the nurses as he ran through the opposite door after Sherlock.
He caught up when Sherlock was slowed down by the process of wrestling the heavy stairwell door open, adding his weight to push it a few inches more to let his lanky companion slither through. “How do you know she—” he called up the stairwell after him, pushing a fraction harder so he could follow him through.
“Keyhole scars from four separate abdominal surgeries,” Sherlock rattled off, taking the steps three at a time. “Fading says years apart, not a single incident. Both knees have reconstruction scars, the latest with new over old. Two streaks of white hair from scars on her scalp; one only a couple of years old, hasn’t completely grown through. Not abuse. Abuse victims minimise their injuries, even unrelated ones: long term habit. Not accident prone, she’d be embarrassed. Not chronic illness, or she’d be resigned. No, she thrives on the attention. The alarmingly pink outfit, unfashionably cut, not to hide the scars, but to display them? And she constantly asks for help she doesn’t need, checks to make sure who’s noticing her and plays it up. Has to be deliberate.”
“That’s brilliant!” said John. Sherlock frowned at him over his shoulder. He’d reached the top door now, and was pulling on it. “Not her,” John clarified hurriedly. “You! Why the father?”
“Preference for older male victims,” Sherlock continued, shaking it off and heading down the hall. “Probably a doctor—a little girl desperate for attention will scrape her knee to get the band aid—but in a house full of medical texts she would have had all the information she needed to step it up. Seventeen visits in two weeks, but not him—none from family at all. Maybe he’s dead, maybe he's just sick of all the drama—but she’s been plaguing A&E looking for the attention she wanted from him all her life. Obvious.”
“Fantastic!” panted John.
Sherlock gave him another curious, sideways look. “D’you realise you do that out—”
“Darren!” shouted John, as they skidded together around the corner and saw the other man, alive and well, shuffling slowly out of the door of his room, with his blind man’s cane and one hand on the wall. He looked up, gave a vague wave, and settled back to his slow progress down the corridor.
John breathed a sigh of relief to see they were in time. He and Sherlock both dropped back to a walk at a glare from Beth, who was apparently manning the nurse’s station on the third floor this afternoon. John smiled at her, ignoring the strange look she gave him in response, and hurried along to keep up with Sherlock’s ground-eating stride.
“Darren, it’s John,” John started as soon as he came within range. Darren turned and smiled.
“John, yeah,” he said. “Of course, I knew it was you. Are you heading down to the gym again? I’m on my way there.”
“Not right now,” said John, trying to catch his breath. “Look, this is hard to explain, can we go back into your room for a chat?”
“I guess,” said Darren, but he looked puzzled, and a bit weary at the idea of retracing his steps. He dropped his hand from the wall, rubbing his neck, and then turned around and headed back in, sweeping his cane in front. “Is it important?”
“Very,” said John, walking beside him, heading to the visitor’s chair by the bed. “There could be, well, there could be a murderer in the hospital, and they might be planning… Sherlock, what is it?”
Sherlock had frozen, eyes narrowed, as Darren reached his bed and turned back to face them again.
“Needle mark,” was all he said though, and then he darted to the doorway, looking both ways down the hall.
John stared at the tiny red dot in the crook of Darren’s elbow; at his hand, rubbing his neck at the junction of his shoulder again; and then at his face. It was pale, with a light sheen of sweat over it.
“Darren,” he said, “was Gloria just here?”
“No,” he said, blinking owlishly at John as though trying to focus his eyes would help his brain interpret the image in front of him. He felt behind him for the bed to sit down heavily. “Well,” he gave a helpless gesture and a breathless laugh. “Not that I saw.”
“I’m going to check you over,” said John, pressing two fingers into his neck and feeling the racing, unsteady pulse. “Did someone give you an injection, a few minutes ago? In your elbow? Has anyone been here?”
Darren frowned at him. “Oh, just one of the nurses,” he said, then had to stop speaking, out of breath. “Wanted to… to… take some…”
Then he collapsed sideways. John guided him down as he slithered limply to the floor, protecting his head in the fall. These beds didn’t have a CPR button or a built in backboard, he’d be better down there than on a squashy mattress.
“Oh my God,” said Gloria, who’d appeared in the doorway next to Sherlock.
She was out of her exercise wear now, in a blue button up shirt and casual black slacks—not all that close a match for a nurse’s uniform, but as Sherlock had said, close enough for a casual glance. For Darren she probably needn’t have bothered at all.
“Is he…” she asked, then gave a little half-scream, her cane falling from her hand as she fainted towards Sherlock—who made as though to catch her, but in fact picked something out of her pocket and then deliberately stepped out of the way, letting her hit the ground with a flinch and a little “Oof!” of surprise which entirely ruined the effect.
John wasn’t watching with more than half an eye; the pulse at Darren’s neck wasn’t racing anymore. He groped up towards the bed and pressed the call button, holding it down for the requisite three seconds to trigger an emergency call.
“Darren?” he called loudly, giving his shoulders a shake. “Can you hear me? Open your eyes! Darren!”
“Ow, ow, ow!” cried Gloria theatrically from the floor at the doorway, trying to recover from the disastrous end of her fake faint. “My arm, I think I’ve…”
There was nothing, no arrhythmia, not even the faintest flutter under John’s fingers. Potassium chloride worked quickly, and when it took effect the heart was essentially paralysed, caught between one beat and the next that would never come. They were too late.
For a moment, John’s leg throbbed with despair, and then his mind went cold and intense. It looked like potassium. And Darren needed him. But John was used to triage situations: the first thing he needed, if Darren was going to have any chance, was to be certain.
“What did you give to him?” he demanded, stalking over towards Gloria and, at her blank look, glancing at Sherlock. “Was it definitely her?
Sherlock mutely held up the mocked up hospital ID badge he’d pulled from her pocket as she’d ‘fainted’, while Gloria looked from one to the other of them in shock, frozen halfway through pushing herself into a sitting position.
“John," she stammered, "I don’t know what… What’s happened to your—”
“You’ll tell me right now, Gloria!” snapped John, glaring down at her like a cranky drill sergeant dissatisfied with the quality of punishment push-ups. “Was it potassium? Did you inject him with potassium chloride?”
Gloria stared up at him, tears welling up and beginning to spill over. Beth, who’d jogged to a halt behind her, was staring at John like she’d never seen him before, and even Sherlock’s eyes were fixed on John as though he were something curiously unexpected.
“Yes,” said Gloria, in a very small voice, and John breathed out, dismissing her from his attention.
Elevated potassium disrupted the electrical conduction of cells all over the body, but most critically that of the heart, interfering in the cycle of polarity that was one of the main factors regulating heart rate. A massive overdose meant that the sodium-potassium pump would take far too long—hours, maybe—to push enough potassium into the cells to trigger the next beat. It killed quickly and certainly; there was a reason it was used in lethal injection. Even a minor imbalance could cause a potentially fatal arrhythmia—but there were treatments for hyperkalemia, mostly for patients in kidney failure who’d eaten too many bananas between dialysis treatments and run into heart trouble. Depending on how much had been in the syringe, it was possible…
“Sherlock, get her out of the doorway,” barked John almost absently as he pulled Darren further out into open floor and knelt beside him. “Find out how much she gave him. Beth, does this place have a crash trolley? No, of course not,” he said.
She shook her head at him, her feet carrying her automatically to John’s side as she finally made it far enough into the room to see Darren’s body on the floor. The clinic didn’t even have a resident doctor, just daily visits from a GP; patients here were supposed to be beyond hospital level care, barely more likely to experience a medical emergency than the general population.
“Beth!” cried Gloria, her voice throbbing with desperation. Sherlock was pulling her over to the chair in the corner of the room, dropping her into it. “He’s hurting me!”
“She’s fine,” snapped John, and the nurse’s eyes sharpened on him again. “Get me the advanced resus kit,” he told her. He’d locked his fingers together, set the heel of his hand in the middle of Darren’s chest and started compressions. “Whatever you’ve got. And make sure all the alarms are ringing!” he yelled after her, as she disappeared without further hesitation.
“There’s no point,” said Sherlock, sounding far away, as though he was speaking through water. “Resuscitation failed on all the others.”
“There’s always a point,” said John, and tilted Darren’s head back to give him two rescue breaths. His shoulder was on fire as he started the cycle again, but he barely noticed. “And we know what’s going on, now, hopefully we can start treatment straight away. His brain’s not dead, even if his heart can’t beat by itself for the moment.”
More nurses began to straggle in, confused and unused to emergencies more serious than a fall out of bed.
“Jessica, call for an ambulance,” said John, as the two from the break room downstairs arrived. He kept the rhythm of the compressions going without having to think about it. “One with an AutoPulse on board, if they can. Tell them there’s a doctor at the scene who’ll be riding along. The patient is a forty year old male in sudden cardiac arrest, likely asystolic, severely hyperkalemic from an IV potassium chloride overdose, will need haemodialysis on arrival. Go! Owen, take over these compressions, my shoulder’s going to give out any minute.”
After a moment of hesitation, the beefy nurse who’d had to help John into the shower that morning knelt on the other side of Darren’s body and smoothly took over between one beat and the next. Owen could half-lift the largest patients here; he looked like he could do CPR all day.
“Thanks,” said John, including Beth in the comment as she jogged back into the room with the kit and opened it on the floor beside him. He gloved up, then grabbed the bag ventilator out of the top and fitted it over Darren’s face.
“Prepare one milligram of epinephrine,” he told her, spotting it in the kit. “Do you have sodium bicarbonate or calcium chloride?”
“Epinephrine, yes. No bicarbonate or calcium,” said Beth, hastily gloving up and rifling through the kit, then beginning to fill a syringe. “We have insulin and glucose? Maybe—”
“Definitely, do it,” interrupted John, understanding the train of thought. They needed to stimulate cellular uptake of potassium; insulin would at least make some difference. “And keep the medical advice coming.”
He flashed her a smile as he put the ventilator aside for a moment, grabbed an alcohol wipe and administered the adrenaline into Darren’s arm.
“Yes, doctor,” she said cheerfully, and handed him the insulin to inject, too.
She wiped the glucose gel inside Darren’s mouth and then took over operating the ventilator, while John worked around Owen’s compressions to attach the automated defibrillator leads to assess heart rhythm. Given the potassium imbalance necessary to stop his heart outright, he’d need more than just adrenaline and insulin to get him to shockable condition, but it was best to be ready.
“Sherlock, how much did he get?” asked John without looking.
“Full fifty mill syringe, saturated solution, or close to,” answered Sherlock promptly. “Maybe ten grams of KCl?”
Beth flinched and looked at John, but he shook his head at her. Jessica reappeared at the door with a phone to her ear.
“How long on the ambulance?” he asked.
“Eleven minutes?” she said. “They’ll need a few more to get into the building. No AutoPulse.”
“All right, stay on the line, let me know when they’re nearly here. In the meantime, page down to the pharmacy for one gram of calcium chloride, ten percent solution. And a saline IV with equipment for a 16G cannula. Get them to send up a runner with it as soon as…”
Sherlock stood quietly in the corner as he watched events unfold, texting Lestrade one-handed—and requesting an urgent digital copy of one John Watson’s medical license from a pleasingly confused Mycroft, against the unlikely event that anyone made their way past the man’s seamless assumption of command to ask why a patient was in charge of the medical emergency. At one point, one of the nurses gave Sherlock’s guarding posture over the sobbing Gloria a sidelong glance, but dismissed him from notice when he flashed Lestrade’s I.D. from across the room and gave a reassuring I’m-with-him nod towards John. No one questioned either of them again.
By the time the ambulance crew left, pushing a stretcher overflowing with paraphernalia, Darren was intubated, a machine breathing for him—but his heart was beating on its own.
Doctor John Watson ran alongside the paramedics, no trace remaining of his limp. He didn’t appear to have heard Gloria’s pleas that he come back and visit her, nor the chime of an incoming text on Sherlock’s phone.
15 mins away, said Lestrade’s text. And give me back my id!! Your not allowed to pretend to be me to arrest people, even if they have murdered 6 people!
Sherlock ignored that. Make it five people, he sent back. Very good doctor on hand, the sixth is going to pull through. SH
John looked at his laptop, at the blinking cursor.
Nothing, he pecked out on the keyboard, one letter at a time.
He stared at the cursor again, but nothing pretty much covered it.
In the hospital there had been… all of that. The larger-than-life madman who could read other people’s lives as easily as breathing. The mystery and the suspense of searching for a killer before she could strike again. The shock and the adrenaline, the thrill of being competent once more, the satisfaction of saving a life that would otherwise have been lost, and the sheer privilege of having seen the mind of a genius at work. Meeting the real DI Lestrade afterwards in the A&E waiting room, where John had managed to end up without money, I.D., or phone. Bursting into a fit of giggles as the man said Sherlock had asked him to pass on a message and, looking confused, handed John his cane. Answering Lestrade’s questions about what had happened on the ride back back in his own rehabilitation ward. Asking him about Sherlock and getting a helpless half-shrug that conveyed volumes. Laughing as he explained to the nurses about where his limp had gone and packed his bag.
But who could put all of that into words?
And how could it really help, when…
That was the problem, wasn’t it? The real problem.
It was gone. Afghanistan. The battlefield. The frantic, glorious adrenaline of trying to reach Darren in time, of keeping his heart beating by hand until the poison in his blood could be neutralised. The mad genius consulting detective who'd invited John to share his battlefield, drawn John in with his incredible insights, and who’d got him to the victim in time to make a difference.
They were all gone, and never likely to cross paths with John again.
Because he wasn’t that John Watson. Not really. Not anymore.
He’d dreamed about the shooting again last night, about his hands slippery with blood working to tighten the tourniquet on Bill’s thigh, how right he’d felt even then, even with the bullet that might as well have gone through his heart already embedded in his shoulder, stealing away everything that John knew how to be.
He’d been out of hospital for two weeks now, going through the motions of living in the boxy subsidised-rent room the army had provided while he ‘got back on his feet’ in London.
He had been on his feet when he’d walked out of hospital, a smile on his face and a spring in his step.
But now it was getting harder and harder to walk without the cane.
Perhaps he could eventually go back to surgery, but the damage to his brachial plexus meant he would have to wait months, even years see whether the full sensitivity and dexterity in his fingers would ever return. In the meantime, he couldn’t even work as a paramedic without the strength to perform CPR for more than a few minutes without relief. He could always find a job as a GP—he had done the dual specialisation, at the Army’s prompting, and GP work had characterised the vast majority of his job in Afghanistan.
He could do the same in a suburban practice, treating sniffles and prescribing antibiotics, trimming ingrown toenails and flushing waxy ears, a team of other doctors on hand to step in if the shakes grew too bad to continue.
The idea felt like it belonged to a stranger.
Who was this John Watson that was all that remained of him?
Nothing, he typed into the body of the blog, and pressed the post button before he could change his mind.
Ella wasn’t going to like that. But she had told him to be honest.
The ache in his leg sharpened suddenly and he glared at it. “Don’t you start that again,” he warned it. “Or I’ll… and now I’m talking to my leg.”
He stomped over to the door, forcing himself not to limp despite the pain. He retrieved his coat off the hook and bundled up. It was freezing outside, and the coat was barely adequate, but he needed air or he was going to suffocate here in the dingy little bedsit. He wasn’t going to be able to afford even subsidised halfway housing for more than a few months; he was going to have to leave London. Leave the only place he had left where he’d ever felt he belonged. Go out into the countryside.
Nothing was going to happen to him, ever again.
He put his hand on the doorknob... and glanced over at his cane, leaning innocently against the wall under the coat hooks. He really should take it with him. It was only sensible. Psychological or not, with the way his leg was feeling, the trick knee was likely to fold up on him at any moment. It would be stupid to go out without it and end up on the ground, unable to pick himself up, while some kind passer-by insisted on calling him an ambulance.
Running into the line of fire to save a friend was one thing, but there were some things that John wasn't brave enough to face.
From the desk, his email pinged, phone buzzing an alert in his pocket at the same moment. John pulled his hand away from the cane again, his feet taking him back over to the computer without conscious direction.
Comment on your entry ‘Nothing’, said the notification in the corner of the screen.
For a moment, leaning over his desk with the mouse hovering on the link, John pretended to himself that he wasn’t going to read it. That he was going to go back to his walk, get outside, and leave it for later.
He knew he’d regret it when he gave in.
The only people with the address to his blog were Ella and Harry, and he didn’t want to see his psychologist’s tepid judgemental concern any more than he wanted to see whatever inappropriate drunken comment Harry could construct from so little material.
But it was no use. A comment on his empty blog entry was the most interesting thing he’d seen since Darren had disappeared through the inner doors of A&E, care officially transferred into the hands of the emergency physician.
John had been allowed to remember being that person, bright and alive again for a moment… and then it had been snatched away, all over again. Each time he lost himself, it seemed like there was less and less that remained.
Maybe soon, there’d be nothing left at all. Maybe soon, when he reached into his desk drawer in the middle of the night, it wouldn’t be for his laptop.
Maybe, however much he didn't want to, he did need to read whatever Ella had to say. Needed to let her help him figure out how to actually be the John Watson that nothing ever happened to.
He clicked the link. Read the comment and frowned in intrigued confusion, even as his mouth began to smile of its own accord.
Walk forgotten, and without taking off his coat, John pulled out the chair and sat down to read the cryptic comment again.
How do you feel about the violin? SH