Chapter 1 -Waiting on the Air (part 1)

10. června 2013 v 9:15 |  English version

July 08th, 2009

Helmand province, Afghanistan

It's scarcely midmorning, but the sun is already a white hole high in the bleached blue of the sky, and the air shimmers hotly above the pale, parched earth. John squints against the glare, despite his tinted safety glasses and the shading rim of his combat helmet.

"Something's wrong," he says, glancing around the walled courtyard. "Where is everyone? Hinde, do you have anything on icom?"

"No, sir," Hinde says, "and the last round of drone intel showed no Taliban activity in the area."

"Right, we can all relax, then," John mutters, winning a slight snort of amusement from Blackwood.

John takes his hand from under his assault rifle and touches the radio control clipped to the front of his body armor.

"McMath, any sign of life on your side?" he says into the microphone of the radio headset he's wearing inside his helmet.

"No, sir," McMath says through the headset's earpiece.

"This house was occupied when we came through here a week ago," Blackwood says.

"Maybe they just packed up and left," Henn says.

"Except they didn't actually pack," John says, jerking his chin towards a scatter of baskets and jars clustered against the wall of the house.

Blackwood clicks his breath in through his teeth discontentedly.

"Let's take a look," John says, lifting the stock of his assault rifle to his shoulder. "Keep your eyes and ears wide open."

He moves forwards into the stark shadow of the house eaves, sets his back to the rough clay wall, and slides to the corner. He cranes his head to look, before stepping round and moving along the adjacent wall to the doorway. Blackwood, Hinde, and Henn take up position across the front of the house with their assault rifles raised. John looks over at Blackwood, nods deliberately once, twice, and then jerks himself forwards off the wall and around to slam the sole of his desert boot into the rickety wooden door. It crashes open in a shower of splinters and a screeching of rusty hinges. John swings his rifle up as he lunges across the threshold - and instantly gags at the heated stench of blood and decay.

"Christ," Blackwood says from behind him.

The windowless room is dark after the dazzling daylight outside. All John can make out are nightmare shadows of deeper darkness splashed across the floor and walls, and ghost pale glimpses of dead faces lolling impossibly over gaping black throats. He stumbles backwards out of the doorway, twists aside, and bends to cough a mouthful of vomit onto the ground. He sucks saliva into his mouth, spits, and wipes the back of his hand across his lips.

"Jesus," Henn says, his voice thinning. "Oh, Jesus, is that - ?"

"Stay steady," John says, his voice raw from vomiting. "We're not safe out here and I need you."

Henn nods fiercely and flexes his grip on his assault rifle. John swings his own assault rifle aside on its strap and digs into the pouch behind his right hip. He pulls out a field dressing, unwraps it, uncaps his water bottle and douses the large square of thick wadding. He clasps the wet dressing over his nose and mouth and steps back into the house.

He stands for a moment to let his eyes adjust to the darkness, and then picks his way among the bodies. Flies swirl away at his approach, drone dully among the rafters, and settle again behind him. He stoops and lifts an out-thrown hand slightly, then drops it again. He stands, blinking hard enough that the tears filling his eyes shatter and fall onto his cheeks. He makes his way back to the door and steps out into the sunlight again. Blackwood grimaces, already reading more in John's expression than he wants to know.

"The women and children are in there," John says, as he discards the water-soaked dressing and takes his assault rifle back into his hands. "They've been dead a couple of days."

"Oh, Jesus," Henn says. "The kids? Who fucking does that?"

John looks at him, lifting his eyebrows slightly.

"I'm fine," Henn says with a quick shake of his head and a frown.

"Let's check the outbuildings," John says. "See if we can find the men."

July 09th

Montague Street, London

"I'd invite you in, if I could be sure you wouldn't accept," Sherlock says without lifting his gaze from the papers spread in front of him.

"Then I'll come in without an invitation," Mycroft says, crossing the threshold.

"Oh. I rather thought you couldn't," Sherlock says. "Duped by the facile commercialization of an Eastern European horror-tale. How embarrassing."

Mycroft sits down in the wing chair next to Sherlock's desk, and holds out the manila file folder he's carrying.

"Not interested," Sherlock says, shaking his head. "In your case, or in whatever cheese-paring inducement you're planning to offer me."

"Anything," Mycroft says quietly. "I will do or say or give you anything you want, if you find the perpetrators of this crime."

Sherlock's eyes widen and then narrow intently. He takes the folder from Mycroft's hand, flipping it open. For a second, the uppermost photograph is just a vivid juxtaposition of pallid skin and black hair and darkly pulped flesh, but then he parses the sense of the image and his eyes flick closed for a split second. He opens them again and shuffles through the remaining photographs.

"Who were they?" he asks.

"We don't know," Mycroft says. "They were found just a few hours ago."

"But they've been dead several days, judging by the discoloration and the disintegration of the more damaged areas," Sherlock murmurs to himself.

Mycroft shifts uncomfortably and purses his lips.

"Four men ranging in age from - sixty? Down to early twenties?" Sherlock says, skimming back through the photographs. "There's a distinct family resemblance between these two, and this one, and maybe even this one. They weren't held for long before this was done, their fingernails and beards are well kept. A single family had four males go missing in the week, and no one reported it? Or you just haven't looked for a report?"

"People file a missing persons report if they have confidence in the administration's ability to act," Mycroft says, "If they haven't, then they don't. And there's the difficulty of actually locating the report, assuming it was ever made."

Sherlock stares at him in surprise.

"They were found by an American patrol in Kandahar province," Mycroft says. "In Afghanistan."

"There have been twenty thousand deaths in Afghanistan," Sherlock frowns. "What do you care about four more?"

"People die in wars, Sherlock," Mycroft says bleakly, "but this isn't war. This is - unacceptable."

Sherlock looks down at the photographs again.

"Why him?" he mutters.

"What?" Mycroft asks, his gaze sharpening.

"The evidence of sexual abuse on the bodies is ostentatious," Sherlock grimaces, "but the youngest one was abused the least, even though he must have been really quite beautiful when he was alive. Most of the perpetrators' energy seems to have been expended on this one, the only one who's short-haired and clean-shaven. The words cut into the body - he's the only one that was done to."

He lifts one of the photographs, holds it at arm's length, and considers it carefully.

"That's really quite stunning," he says.

"I was certainly stunned when I saw it," Mycroft says.

Sherlock glances at him, and then back at the photograph.

"I don't mean as a crime," he says. "I mean as an image. Magnificent profile, the open eyes, the way the words cut into him are bracketed by his open hand - 'we did this'."

"I'm pleased to see that you haven't completely smothered your artistic sensibilities," Mycroft says. "You used to be so gifted in that way."

Sherlock drops the photograph back into the folder.

"Of course the effect is striking," he announces. "That's the whole point of the exercise, after all. Otherwise, why expend so much energy on the insensate in the first place?"

"Insensate?" Mycroft echoes.

"These men were already dead, or at least unconscious when the rest was done to them," Sherlock says. "There are no marks from the wrist ligatures. A man conscious and enduring rape and torture of that ferocity would have practically torn his own hands off."

"Thank God for small mercies," Mycroft says quietly.

"Indeed," Sherlock nods. "Simple sadism doesn't narrow a field of suspects much, but this is something more complicated, which is always helpful."

Mycroft's mouth softens in faint dismay, and then in rueful affection.

"Four men, each killed with a single shot to the head and then sexually abused, mutilated, and a message in English carved into one body," Sherlock says keenly. "This was carefully staged; the product was what mattered to the perpetrators, not the process - but who's the message for? And who are 'we'? All right, send me everything you've got, though you must realize there's only so much I can do with secondhand data - "

"There's a plane ready to leave at RAF Northolt," Mycroft says, "and the necessary clothes and papers are in the car that's waiting to take you there."

"You want me to go to Afghanistan?" Sherlock says, turning his head so that he's looking at Mycroft from the corners of his eyes.

"I want you to ensure that this monstrosity does not occur again, in a country I - we are partially responsible for administering," Mycroft answers.

"Well, I do applaud your concern for the proper conduct of the completely pointless invasion and occupation of a sovereign nation," Sherlock drawls, but it is rather outside my area of operations."

"I realize your personal geography doesn't extend beyond the M25," Mycroft says, "but as I said: in return, anything that's mine to give, and many things that aren't."

Sherlock lifts his chin sharply, considering Mycroft from under furrowed brows. Mycroft stares back, his eyes steady but his mouth twisting uncertainly.

"Very well," Sherlock says at last. "I'll need a few minutes."

"Of course," Mycroft says. "Though, I have taken the liberty of having a large dose of Tofisopam waiting for you in the car. I think you'll find its aftereffects are less debilitating than your usual choice."

"In that case, I'll get my coat," Sherlock says with a small smile.

Mycroft's expression broadens into satisfaction, but then his eyes turn wary.

"I am relying on your professional discretion, Sherlock," he says. "You will find the guilty party, and I will deal with them. There's no reason to cause unnecessary distress to anyone else."

"What's the matter, Mycroft?" Sherlock says. "Afraid the British public doesn't have the artistic stomach to appreciate these pictures?"

Something turns to steel beneath Mycroft's soft features.

"Don't worry," Sherlock says lazily. "I'll make sure no one makes a scandal out of your perfectly proper war."

A few hours later, Sherlock is slouched in his seat, his head tipped back and his eyes closed, with a small overhead light shining down onto him in the otherwise darkened plane. He lifts his head and opens his eyes as he extracts his phone from the inside pocket of his jacket. He contemplates the number displayed for the incoming call, but doesn't answer. He peers out of the window. All that's visible is the illuminated wing of the plane surrounded by deep blackness. His phone signals an incoming text. He sits up straighter and opens the message.

Answer your phone.

Where am I? he texts back.

Over Syria. Answer your phone. Possible lead on identities.

His phone displays the same number for an incoming call, and this time he answers.

"Yesterday a Royal Marine patrol reported an incident in Helmand province," Mycroft says without waiting for Sherlock to greet him. "All the women and children from a single family were found murdered, and the men are missing. The officer leading the patrol reported seeing three men at the house on previous occasions - estimated ages sixty-five, forty-five, and twenty-five."

"Excellent, I'll start with the reporting officer. Who is he? Where is he?"

"Captain John Watson, Forty Commando, at Forward Operating Base Sangin," Mycroft enunciates crisply.

"How do I get there?" Sherlock asks.

"You don't," Mycroft says. "I'm having you rerouted to Camp Bastion, and Captain Watson will be brought there by helicopter."

"Acceptable," Sherlock says.

"Sherlock? Do try to be careful, won't you?" Mycroft says lightly.

Sherlock cuts the call, and tucks his phone back into his pocket. He stares out at the darkness, strumming the ball of his thumb repetitively across his lower lip.

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