That was the marvellous and the terrifying part of SOE in its adolescence: it was pitted and pockmarked with improbable people doing implausible things for imponderable purposes and succeeding by coincidence.
"Between Silk and Cyanide", Leo Marks (Head of Agent Codes, SOE)
4TH JANUARY 1943
There had been bombings a few years ago. Joan, like every other Londoner, had gotten accustomed to the strange yellowy grey mornings-after when everybody came stumbling out into the all-clear and tried to work out what was and wasn’t still there. London had become a mouth full of broken teeth; a city with great huge blown-apart gaps in it where Joan had known shops, streets, houses. The bombsites had been, and still were, extraordinary emptinesses; holes in what had previously been absolutely certain.
Now, after France, or perhaps just after Sherlock, Joan had that same feeling all over again. Returning to London seemed like nothing so much as one long, unearthly morning after a very private air raid. She spent long hours cautiously probing the tender gaps inside her, feeling out the places where everything familiar had been blown to rubble.
Which was, of course, distracting, especially when she had other things to worry about. Speaking English, for instance. “Merci,” Joan kept saying to shopkeepers, bus conductors, strangers in the street, or, “Excusez-moi,” to the same, or, “Just—stop,” to herself, occasionally too loud and too much in public, earning herself strange looks.
Otherwise, though, she passed strangely unnoticed, even in her mannish civvies and with her sandy hair cut short and waved back. Practical, hard-faced women in second-hand trousers were all part of the war effort, she supposed, and why should anyone look at her and see more? She was both grateful for and bewildered by the lack of attention. It gave her a curious sense of slippage, as if she were struggling to really be present in the world. When she caught her reflection flitting across dusty shop front glass, she would think: God, who’s that? Or: what’s my cover, again? Who am I meant to be impersonating?
But she was living under her own name in her own country. And she reminded herself that she should be grateful for it.
A flat had been provided for her on Baker Street, so close to the headquarters it might as well have been attached to it. Number 221B comprised a creaking couple of Victorian rooms which were, with a particular cruelty, furnished for two. Mostly, Joan stayed indoors, watching the second armchair stay empty, watching the bath fill, watching the kettle boil. She wished they hadn’t taken her gun from her, though what she would use it for now she didn’t know.
“It’s nice,” she had said when Harding first escorted her to the flat. It was nice. It just didn’t look real, any of it. “What am I meant to do here?”
“The right moment, Watson. You won’t be here for long.”
“No time to waste?”
“No. Certainly not your time.” Harding had given her a tired, wry, sideways look, and brushed his hand over his moustache and mouth. His lower lip had still been a little swollen, a faint dark pink line all that was left of the bloody split Joan had opened with her knuckles just two days before. “Wouldn’t dare try that again.”
Joan had smiled for a second and then looked away, and after a moment she had felt Harding’s hand on her shoulder, patting, gripping, shaking and then dropping away, his footsteps receding and the door closing after him; and then she had been alone, staring at the room and trying to understand why it seemed like a museum. A mock-up of A Flat In 1943.
Not that Joan could reliably remember that it was 1943. She felt slightly unnerved by how quickly she seemed to be stumbling into the future. 1942 had been a long year, and she had been too busy in France to notice it winding down.
She had been cheated of something. A couple of months. A proper end to the year. An English Christmas. Not that she would have had anyone to share it with, though perhaps if things had been slightly different Sherlock would have been in this very room with her, both of them fresh from France and home in time for something which, well, didn’t matter, because it wasn’t like either of them were religious. It just would have been good to have someone to hold off the night with until they both gave into it; it would have been good to fold and crumple together onto fresh bedsheets, all alcohol breath and inconvenient elbows, with Sherlock’s hair in her mouth. It would have been good to be out of France, to be with Sherlock; it would have been good, very good, if Sherlock had survived to see the Christmas of 1942 anywhere.
But she had killed herself two days before that. 23rd December 1942. Twelve days ago. Six days since Joan had learned that she was dead. Days. And days and days. The word seemed serious but the things themselves fluttered by like moths.
An ugly thought buzzed and flickered in Joan’s mind as she descended the steps in Baker Street Tube station, the underground echoes turning the mutter and clatter of the crowd around her surreal. For six days, Sherlock had been dead, and during those six days Joan had been carrying on as usual, working on getting back to London, thinking that Sherlock would be there waiting for her. There had been no audible crack, no banshee yell, no unexplained bleeding, no feeling of being alone.
On the Metropolitan line to Aldersgate and Barbican, the Tube rattling her in her seat, the lights flickering and her hands clasped in her lap, Joan supposed that soon, she would lose count; that there would, eventually, come a day when she wouldn’t know how many days Sherlock had been dead.
Nobody bothered her as she left the train and navigated her way out of the station. Seeing the bomb-shattered streets again was an eerie shock, almost welcome for how it blew Sherlock from the forefront of Joan’s mind for a moment, though her absence was still palpable, the dull physical ache in Joan’s chest still painful and unnameable as ever. The area around St Paul’s had been hit hard two years ago and still bore the scars; for some reason, Joan had expected it to be cleaner than this by now, less brutalised. In the middle of the maze of ripped-apart buildings the cathedral itself rose up with its round head solemn as a tombstone. At the time, Joan remembered, its survival had been called a miracle, but it didn’t look triumphant; rather, it seemed shell-shocked, baffled by its continued existence.
She was so distracted by the ruins that she almost missed the gate she was looking for. She crossed the road, pushed it open, and all but crept inside.
The park was quiet and lush, almost defiantly green. And totally silent. The low grumblings of the city were muted by the threadbare trees and the buildings, in various states of ruin and repair, which rose around the park’s perimeter.
Or the silence could somehow have been the fault of the woman sitting on one of the benches with her hand on the handle of her umbrella, presenting Joan with a very familiar straight back and a perfect, brassy victory roll. It seemed possible.
Joan dropped onto the bench beside her. “You,” she said, looking straight ahead. “I didn’t think it would be you.”
“Good morning,” said Mycroft Holmes. “Who were you expecting?”
“Someone from Baker Street,” Joan admitted. “For a briefing.”
“You live on Baker Street. Does the Special Operations Executive habitually lure its agents to ancient burial grounds in Aldersgate rather than pop next door?”
“Yes,” Joan said, leaning her head back and staring at the sky, which was January white. “That is exactly the kind of thing SOE does. And usually for good reason. Burial ground?”
“Indeed,” said Mycroft. “This park is built on a centuries-old burial ground. Hence, you’ll note, why the ground is elevated above street level.”
Slowly, Joan tipped her head back down, and looked around. Mycroft was right. “Is that meant to imply,” she said, “that there are so many bodies under our feet right now that...”
Joan pressed her lips together, bit down hard on the lower. On her knee, her left hand flexed. “Interesting choice.”
“You get me to come and meet you twelve days after your sister dies, in an old graveyard. Sensitive. Sensitive idea for a meeting place, really. Is this—do you think this is clever, or something?”
“Death will happen, Joan,” Mycroft said, her voice heavy and calm.“And we can only deal with the aftermath.” Joan just huffed out a scornful laugh, and Mycroft gave a sigh, drumming her fingers on the handle of her umbrella. She was wearing well-made leather gloves, almost definitely pre-war. As Joan watched, she gripped her umbrella tighter and swung it up into the air, jabbing the point in the direction of what was in front of them; the wall of a building rising upwards, with a wooden canopy sticking out of it, towards them, and under it, a wall of plaques or tiles. Joan followed the movement automatically. “The Monument to Heroic Self-Sacrifice,” Mycroft announced, lowering her umbrella.
“Is that what it is?” Joan frowned, trying to read the words on the tiles, though from this distance it was impossible. “Not very dramatic.”
“I imagine that’s the point.” Joan said nothing, and Mycroft cleared her throat to continue, her voice calm and didactic. “Each tile tells the story of an ordinary person who lost their life doing something, ah, heroic.”
“Right,” Joan said. “Sorry, could you just—do me one favour? Don’t talk to me about self-sacrifice.”
Mycroft gave a long-suffering sigh, and Joan’s hands curled up into fists in her lap. “As you wish.”
“Why are we here?”
“Because it’s quiet.”
“No, why are we meeting at all?”
Mycroft made a thoughtful noise and leaned back, her eyes—pale as her sister’s, paler—drifting away from the monument and up to the sky. Joan caught a flash of memory so strong she could almost taste it; Sherlock, standing stranded in the middle of the entrance hall of Wanborough Manor, her chin tipped up, the shadows moving in the wide grey rings of her eyes. Her uniform burned bright blue against the wood of the walls—so much more real than this park, this bench, this deflated, exhausted world.
“There’s going to be a ceremony,” Mycroft said from somewhere distant. “I imagine you don’t want to hear anything so trite as ‘she would have wanted you there’, but you are, nonetheless, invited.”
“By ceremony,” Joan said, “you mean funeral, don’t you.”
“Good of you. Considering everything.”
“They do say blood is thicker.”
“There’s no body,” Joan pointed out, feeling far away from herself.
“Funerals are for the living, not the dead.” Cover, you mean, Joan thought; cover is for the living, not the dead. And true to form, the next thing Mycroft said was, “She was stationed overseas in Malta, doing signalling work, and died in a car accident while being driven to her billet; the driver and the other passenger were also killed. Considering her dedication to overseas work and the wishes of her unit to be present at her burial, and considering also the current difficulties involved in shipping a body back to England, I have, as next of kin, elected to have her interred in Malta and hold a funeral for her relatives and friends back here in London. In any case, the body is not entirely in a state which grieving loved ones might care to see.”
“Did Baker Street come up with that, or did you?”
“Hardly me; I don’t know where you think I find the time for all the conspiracies you believe I facilitate. You’ll come?”
“No. Thank you.”
“I strongly advise you to at least consider it.”
“You left a message in the flat I’m staying at to organise this meeting.”
“Doesn’t matter. You left a message telling me to come to this place, at this time. You left it in the flat, which is not only owned by SOE, but is practically physically attached to SOE headquarters. You’re not meant to know what SOE does, you’re not meant to know where they’re based, you’re not meant to know I’m anything to do with them. But you left a message in the flat, somehow. You didn’t take that risk just to invite me to a bloody funeral which I’m not going to go to. So why are we meeting?”
Mycroft fixed her with a look which made Joan feel as if she were being taken apart and found wanting. In the face of Mycroft’s cool, heavy calm, she felt cluttered and ugly with emotion. She gritted her teeth, and waited for Mycroft to stop staring at her.
“Before my sister left for France,” Mycroft said, “she entrusted to me a letter, to be delivered to you in case anything calamitous should happen.”
Joan breathed out slowly, looking away.
It really was quiet here; beautiful, almost, in that the grass was so green that it hurt Joan’s eyes. Made the rims of them sting. Still, too, but not soft; angular the way English gardens always were; crisp, the chill just nipping through Joan’s oversized jacket. Joan closed her eyes and found she could almost smell France, and the join between Sherlock’s throat and shoulder when they had been in bed together in, where had it been that time; oh, God, in that awful garret where Sherlock had been hiding, after Sherlock had first pretended not to know her and then held onto her so tightly that Joan was sometimes convinced she should still have marks on her upper arms. The room where Sherlock’s mouth had tasted of coffee and the pillow had been damp with sweat all through the night—though how many days ago that had been, Joan didn’t know. Enough to be far away. For her to be forgetting the details already. Brushing them clean in her mind, having to struggle to give them sharp edges.
“Was that her wording?” Joan asked finally. “Did she say ‘anything calamitous’?”
“No. She said it was to be given to you in the event of her death.”
Of course she had.
Joan looked around. Mycroft was holding out a plain white envelope. It was too small and too thin to contain anything substantial, but inside were Sherlock’s last words to her. They could be anything. It might not be over.
“No,” Joan heard herself saying, “no, I, no. Keep it.”
“You do understand why I can’t do that, don’t you?”
Joan heaved in a breath, and muttered, “Your job.” Her voice was thick and angry.
“Yes,” Mycroft said, quite calmly. “My job. It isn’t done for government archivists to hang on to correspondence from traitors guilty of passing information to the Gestapo.”
“Don’t. She wasn’t. You don’t believe that.”
“It doesn’t matter what I believe, Joan,” said Mycroft, getting to her feet. She turned to face Joan, standing over her and fixing her with a thoughtful look, her weight on one hip and the point of her umbrella. The envelope was still in her hand. She was holding it out to her, pinched between thumb and forefinger, like something she didn’t want to touch. For the first time, it registered in Joan’s mind that everything Mycroft was wearing was glossy black. “That is what the evidence points to. And that is how she is thought of.”
“It’s not exactly convenient for me, either. Think of that?”
“Yes,” Mycroft said, her voice turning steely and somehow bored. “I have. And the inconvenience is not what’s stopping you from taking it.”
If she reached up to take the letter Joan knew her hand would tremble. She stared at it instead. “How can you do this?” she asked Mycroft, her voice quiet. “How can you just stand there, planning her funeral, perfectly happy to let people think she was—how?”
Mycroft sighed, and released the letter, dropping it onto the bench where she had been sitting. She sniffed, rubbed her fingertips together as if the envelope had dirtied the leather of her gloves, and dropped her hand to her side. “With a great deal of practicality,” she said. “The funeral is on the sixth. Eleven AM sharp at Abney Park Chapel; there'll be a headstone erected in the cemetery there. There’s a family plot closer to the estate, naturally, but I doubt Sherlock would have approved of that. Ever the Londoner.”
“I don’t want the letter.”
“Burn it, then. Lock it away. Anything, Joan; just don’t leave it lying about,” Mycroft said, turning on her heel to go and walking off, leaving Joan with an unimpeded view of the Monument to Heroic Self-Sacrifice. Her voice drifted back across the park as she walked towards the gate: “There are some terribly untrustworthy sorts around these days.”
“I don’t want it,” Joan said to no one, after Mycroft was gone.
WANBOROUGH MANOR, SURREY
Officer training course, they had said. Of course, Joan hadn’t actually believed them, without quite daring to put a name to why—but whatever the suspicions swimming through the dark water in the back of her mind, she hadn’t expected to arrive at a stately home.
Neither had she expected a stately home to seem quite like this.
With its dull, chocolatey wood and the smell of old dust mixing with clean cotton and mashed potatoes, the entrance hall of Wanborough Manor was strangely reminiscent of a boarding school. It was an impression only encouraged by the sheets of typewriter paper stuck to the wood panelling, interrupting the ruddy Elizabethan grandeur of the place. In the doorway, her eyes struggling to adjust to the gloom inside, Joan stopped and stared, leaning on her cane. Chewing on her lower lip. Feeling, but not wanting to feel, the faintest glimmers of excitement humming down under her skin.
The fact was, after all, that this didn’t look like the kind of place she should be, which only made her want to be there more.
In the middle of the hall, a man with his back to her and a major’s insignia glinting on his shoulder was consulting one of the sheets of paper, checking it off against whatever was on the clipboard balanced on his arm. His hair was rusty, his tunic rumpled at the hem, his feet planted almost too wide apart as if to stabilise him as he frowned down at the clipboard. He seemed totally oblivious of the stern, echoing space around him.
Joan stared at him, knuckles paling as she gripped the head of her cane tighter, and wondered who he was. He had a general air of being crumpled and comfortingly scratchy; an air which shattered when he said, “No point standing in the doorway,” without turning around, his surprising East End accent grating in his throat.
Joan jumped. “Sorry, sir,” she said, stepping inside and straightening up as best she could, coming to attention and forcing herself not to salute: the major's cap was beneath his arm, and as much as she would have felt better for saluting, it wouldn't have been good form. “Corporal Joan Watson, for the officer training course.”
The major turned and gave her a quick up and down look. His eyes dropped to her cane.
Joan tightened her grip and felt the hope she hadn’t been meaning to feel in the first place snap neatly in two.
So that was that, then. She knew as much even before he said anything. It had been a mistake all along and she was going to have to go right back to her typing post in Newcastle. She shouldn’t be so surprised.
At the interview, she had sat straight-backed and attentive as a calm, efficient sort of woman in civilian clothes asked her questions in a tone found nowhere outside the military. In the background, a clock had been clicking through the seconds; they had both had cups of tea in front of them, and Joan vaguely remembered feeling as if they had been playing an unspoken game of restraint, each refusing to take a sip before the other. She had been taciturn, careful. Could she speak French? Yes. Well? Well enough. Yes. She had lived there. A long time ago, though. When? Oh, a long time ago. 1935 to 1938.
“Would the prospect of immediate physical danger dissuade you from carrying out a task?” the woman had finally inquired, suddenly breaking from her line of questioning about France. (Was she well-integrated into French life? Yes, she had had some friends there. What sort of friends? Close friends. Political? Er, no. Artistic.) Would the threat of immediate physical danger stop her in her tracks? No one had ever asked Joan anything like that before, so she had blinked and said too fervently, but quite honestly, “God, no.”
The woman across from her had smiled thinly and checked something off on a page in front of her. And they had both let their tea go cold and untasted, two full, chilly teacups still between them on the desk by the time Joan had stood up, straightened her uniform skirt, and said, “Thank you,” and hoped she had done enough, without knowing quite what she was hoping for.
But the interview—and the phone call, when another, different woman with the same polite, blank voice had informed her that she had been successful and would report for a four week training course—had been before the accident.
“Ah,” said the major, and Joan refused to give in to the urge to close her eyes, feeling crushingly stupid.
“I should tell you,” he continued, and Joan for a moment almost liked and almost hated him because he was honest enough to point his pen at her cane, “that there is intensive PT involved in this course. That stick is going to cause you some trouble, Corporal.”
Unsticking her jaw took some effort—it felt like her back teeth were glued together—but she wrestled her mouth open and felt the words I’m sorry, sir, there’s obviously been a miscommunication lying heavy on her tongue. She rolled them awkwardly around her mouth, closing her lips and opening them all over again.
Maybe it was the prompt. Maybe he shouldn’t have prompted her. “It’s just a sprain, sir,” she said, a little too tightly. “I’ll be fine in a day or two.”
The major narrowed his eyes at her, and she stared back, too startled by the lie which she had just told to do anything but try and see it through. And then, after a moment, he dropped his arm in what was almost a shrug, and said, “Is it? Good. You’ll excuse a little caution.”
“Yes,” Joan said numbly, some part of her mind chattering away to the tune of you idiot you bloody idiot what was that what are you going to do. “Especially now.”
“What, with the war? Yes, I noticed that, Corporal.” He was grinning to himself, Joan realised, tightening her grip on the head of her cane, suddenly swept up in irritation. He looked up, just a second after Joan had marshalled her features back into tight, expressionless order. “Going to wait in the doorway all day?”
“I’m, no,” said Joan, ramming her cane with more force than necessary into the floorboards as she dragged herself forwards, tension humming in her shoulders. “No, of course not.”
“Good. Well, pleasure to meet you, Corporal.” He stuck his hand out, and Joan grabbed it, gripped hard for a few seconds. “Major Andrew Harding; I’m going to be overseeing your training.” Her stomach dipped even lower. Her hand had to be clammy with sweat. A sprain? Why had she— “Let’s see where you’re sleeping, then. Watson, Watson, Watson...here we go. Room number fourteen, with Holmes, Hooper and Donovan. Any of those names ring a bell? No, don’t see why they would. Right! There’s tea out in the rec room whenever you’ve bagged your bed; there’ll be an address at seventeen hundred hours. Might clear up a few of the questions what you’re dying to ask which I don’t want to answer thirty times over. After that, PT, which you can sit out this time. Got it?”
“Room fourteen’s on the second floor. Two flights of steps.” Harding glanced at her cane again. His eyes were a hard kind of green, and his tone was as polite as it was warning. He wasn’t offering any help; for that, Joan thought she felt a thin flicker of gratitude. She gave a tight nod.
“Thank you, sir,” she said, turning on her heel, her heart thrumming hard and fast in her chest. “I’ll consider it intensive PT.”
The sound behind her might have been a stifled chuckle or a muffled cough. Even later, better acquainted with both his belly laugh and his thick, tarry smoker’s hack, she would never be able to tell in retrospect what Harding had thought of her on that first meeting, just like she was never sure what she had thought of him.
Joan let her cane thump harder than necessary against each dark oak step of the two flights of stairs, producing satisfyingly deep echoes. What she had just done—what she had just tried to pull off—was so absurd that it didn’t actually feel real. Particularly because there was absolutely no way out of it.
Room fourteen was marked with another sheet of paper stuck to the door; a number and four surnames, her own right at the end. She shouldered her way in.
The room was bare and bright. At four in the afternoon it still smelt of the early morning. Joan suspected that it had once been a study, but all its native furniture had been removed, replaced with four narrow, stripped down beds with sheets folded precisely at their ends and issues of khaki battle dress folded atop the sheets. There were four bedside tables with two drawers each and one long bench with two mirrors balanced on it. Dust drifted in shafts of weak light from the window.
A brown leather suitcase sat at the foot of one of the beds, along with a pair of well-worn black shoes. Joan frowned at them for a moment, not least because the mysterious Holmes-Hooper-or-Donovan who owned them had bagged the bed nearest to the fireplace, lucky sod. She picked the neighbouring bed and dropped down onto it, putting her suitcase beside her, and, with a sigh, detached her interest from the debris of personality her unknown roommate had left behind.
It didn’t matter. She wasn’t going to be here long. And at least her typing post was warm.
Of course, she would have scrapped it—along with its its nice-enough working hours, its tea breaks, its clattering, eternal noise—to feel her old ambulance plunging forwards unevenly as she slammed her foot down. Or for fixing up a stalled truck at the side of the road at three in the morning, the only person in the world it felt like, freezing right down to her bones, her fingers clumsy with cold. Or the silence of an empty road at night, her headlights just slits of illumination, the only noise the background snarl of the engine and that not a noise at all but more of a vibration in her bones. She would have gone back to any of that in a heartbeat, chilblains and numb fingers and lonely fear be damned. Once you were driving fast enough you forgot.
Obviously it wasn’t an option now, though, so there was really no point thinking about it, just like there was no point thinking about this place, or the interview she had attended. (“Would the prospect of immediate physical danger dissuade—” “God, no.” The more she thought about it, the more she wondered if she hadn’t actually spoken over the woman interviewing her in her eagerness to protest the idea. Even when she had been driving ambulances, no one had asked her that. The danger had been a cold, unspoken fact, shameful to address. Not the point.)
A sprain. She wished it were a sprain; she wished it were anything at all, a bruise or a break or a mysterious disease. It wasn’t. After just a few days in hospital it had become clear that there was no reason for the limp, no reason for the pain which ebbed and swelled, coming and going, giving her bad days and good days, good days still being painful, and bad days being not just painful but full of a pain which gripped. Doctors had tossed around terms like hysterical trauma and then had eventually shrugged their shoulders and said that she was overreacting. Sometimes—often—she thought about begging off sick, forcing her face down into her pillow, and just not moving, just staying there, except of course she couldn’t do that when she had a job to do, even it wasn’t the job she wanted. War, it had turned out, was a lot about getting out of bed when you didn’t want to. Fortunately, Joan had always been good at that.
She pinched the bridge of her nose, took an unsteady breath. She should have just said it. I can’t do PT. Short, simple, over in seconds like ripping a bandage off.
And then she would have had to wait, gritting her teeth through Harding’s clumsy sympathy, until transport could be arranged and she could go limping back to Newcastle. Back to her typewriter and the desk which had left red marks on her forearms from leaning on it; the clicking of machines and the smell of paper and ink, tame and dry and bitter.
Of course, it was going to be worse explaining now.
She snapped open her suitcase as if there would be an answer inside it, but of course there was just her kit, and her washbag, and a single letter from Harry tucked carefully back into its envelope. Would the prospect of imminent physical danger dissuade her from carrying out a necessary task? God, no, but the interviewer had asked the wrong question. She should have asked, really, if she would quail at the thought of admitting—
She should have asked if Joan was a worse kind of coward than the sort who ran from danger.
Damn it. Damn it. She would tell him. Right now. She got up, her cane knocking angrily against the floorboards, and reached for the door, flinging it open:
“Ah,” said the woman standing in the doorway, her voice a purring jumble of bitter Cambridge vowels, “oh, no, I wouldn’t bother.”
Joan reached for words. The woman stared down at her. Her eyes were so pale Joan couldn’t quite work out their colour, and her gaze wasn’t exactly patient so much as suggestive of some slightly alien way of experiencing the passage of time. Slowly, furtively, Joan dropped her own gaze to the stranger’s feet, which were shoeless, clad in grey lisle stockings. Ah.
She raised her eyes, and found Holmes-Hooper-or-Donovan still watching her. “No?” Joan asked finally, her voice tight and pleasant, not sure what they were discussing.
“No,” the stranger said. Her voice thrummed huskily in her throat. “He’s in his office, taking a ’phone call. I imagine he won’t want to be disturbed for quite some time—not even to hear your revelations.”
“What are you talking about?” Joan asked, a little desperately.
“Major Harding, obviously,” the woman sighed. “And your intention to inform him that despite what you said earlier, no, the injury you received in your recent accident isn’t a sprain; it’s much more serious, and you don’t believe it will go away in a few days. But, as I’ve stated, he’s occupied, so I suggest you save yourself the walk. It’s two flights, after all, and he’s only going to dismiss you. I can’t imagine you really want to do it anyway. You’re standing in the doorway, may I...?”
“Yes, of course,” Joan said, stepping automatically away from the door. The woman breezed by. She was in civilian clothing—a dark purple blouse which was really too small on her and a black skirt which, as Joan watched, fanned out and fluttered as she set herself down onto her bed.
“Sorry,” said Joan, “did you overhear—?” She made a gesture over her shoulder, feeling horror and confusion creep slowly but surely inwards.
“No,” the stranger said, “of course not.”
“Right. Good. I’m glad. How do you know—”
The stranger rubbed her hand over her face—spidery fingers passing over thin eyebrows, pointy cheekbones, full lips, a strange, clammy sort of paleness. She was pretty. No, she was very far from pretty. She was probably closer to beautiful, in an unfamiliar and bad-tempered way. “Do you have a pen?” she interrupted. Joan stopped and pressed her lips together.
“I don’t have a pen, no.”
The woman was touching her lower lip with the tips of her fingers and frowning, her eyes fixed with uncanny steadiness on Joan. “That’s interesting,” she murmured.
“Ha,” Joan said, too brightly. “Is it. Sorry, who are you? How do you know—anything about me?”
“By looking,” the woman said, suddenly standing up and pulling out the drawer of her bedside table, frowning at the contents. Joan just stared at her. “It’s interesting because it means that you’re not in the habit of writing to your family—odd for a woman who, until now, has been working up around Newcastle, while her sister remains in London. Of course, perhaps you two just aren’t close. She wrote to you after your accident—a crash, I suppose—but not before or after. Rather remarkable, though, that you didn’t write back.” She pushed suddenly past Joan, whose mouth was hanging open, and threw her suitcase onto her bed to open it. “Maybe she was consoling you after your injury, maybe she was congratulating you on your promotion to Corporal and reassignment to a desk job. You would have found either one distasteful enough—hurtful enough, perhaps—to refuse to respond. Or, of course, you could just not be on speaking terms with her. You don’t like her drinking, after all, or her black market interests, and I imagine your grammar school education, not to mention the time you spent in France, isolated you from your family somewhat. Sherlock Holmes.”
“It’s my name. You asked who I was.”
“Right, actually, I meant—”
“Could have sworn I had a pen in here somewhere,” Sherlock remarked, dropping the lid of her suitcase with an irritable flick of her wrist. She seemed to be talking over not just Joan but the universe at large, and she was swanning off in the direction of the door. Still without shoes on. “Supply cupboard on the first floor, then. Lovely to meet you, Joan—”
“Oh, for God’s sake, come off it, you can’t know my name as well as—”
“Your suitcase,” Sherlock said, poking her head back through the door to deliver the words with a wild flash of teeth and her curls bouncing against her cheek. “You'll want to put in for a room change, of course. When you do stay.” And then she ducked out again.
The door clicked shut. The silence rolled.
Joan stared after her, wetting her lips compulsively, fingers flexing on the handle of her cane. Slowly, she turned to look at her suitcase, where it lay open on her bed. “Oh,” she said, feeling both dim and relieved. Harry’s letter, addressed to Cpl Joan Watson, Fenham Barracks, Newcastle, was sitting quietly atop her neatly-folded clothes. Explaining—really very little, all the same.