Chapter 1 -Waiting on the Air (part 2)

10. června 2013 v 9:16 |  English version

July 10th
Camp Bastion, Helmand province
"Mister Holmes, sir, welcome to Camp Bastion," the officer at the foot of the plane's steps says crisply as Sherlock emerges blinking into the bright morning light.
Sherlock is wearing his coat, with a soft gray leather duffel bag slung over one shoulder and the manila file folder in his hand.
"Oh - wonderful," he growls, looking around as he slouches down the steps.
The sky is vast, blankly blue from horizon to horizon, and utterly empty except for one plane coming in on a low approach and another slanting up into the air having just taken off. Acres and acres of pale gray concrete stretch out on all sides, and beyond them infinitely more acres of pale beige ground run out to low beige hills. Aircraft, from monstrous transports to arrowhead fighter jets, are dotted or ranked across the concrete; the helicopters are ranged across the open ground farther away. There's a single gray road running off the airfield to a sprawling settlement of olive green tents and prefabricated buildings in the distance.
"I'm Captain Ormond, sir. I'll be your escort during your stay," Ormond says, shaking Sherlock's hand briefly. "May I take your bag?"
Sherlock relinquishes his bag, and Ormond stows it in the back of the jeep that's parked next to the plane.
"This is your security pass, sir," Ormond says, offering a laminated identification card with a metal clip attached. "You'll need to wear it clearly displayed at all times."
Sherlock takes the card and puts it in his coat pocket. Ormond looks dubious but doesn't protest.
"I see," Ormond says dryly. "You've been assigned quarters in Accommodation Block Three. I can take you there now, if you'd like to get settled."
"Is Captain Watson here yet?" Sherlock says.
"Yes, sir," Ormond says at once. "He got in about an hour ago."
"Take me to him," Sherlock says, shrugging his coat off and throwing it over his bag.
The officers' common room in the Royal Marines' operational administration building is a Frankenstein construction of semi-permanent tenting, prefabricated floors, and furnishings suggestive of a particularly soulless hotel chain, albeit one where the guests wear pale camouflage combat clothing, and the usual scattering of luggage is transmuted to canvas packs and body armor in the corners, with helmets and assault rifles left lying on the couches. Men stare with undisguised curiosity at Sherlock as he stands beside Ormond, the folder in one hand and his other hand dipped into his hip pocket.
"McGuire," Ormond says, attracting the attention of a lieutenant sprawling in a leatherette club chair. "Where's Watson?"
"Mess, sir," McGuire says, straightening up a bit.
Ormond leads Sherlock down a canvas-roofed hallway, through double doors into a large area filled with Formica tables each surrounded by metal chairs. Four men in tee shirts or shirtsleeves are sitting at one table; John, in full combat clothing, is sitting at another table with his pack, body armor, helmet, and assault rifle piled next to him. He's deeply engrossed in eating ice cream from a waxed paper cup, but as soon as Sherlock and Ormond enter he sets it aside and gets to his feet.
"Wait here; I don't need you hovering," Sherlock says to Ormond.
Ormond raises his eyebrows but stays by the door while Sherlock crosses to John's table.
"Captain Watson," Sherlock says, extending his hand. "I'm Sherlock Holmes."
"Sir," John says, grasping Sherlock's hand.
Sherlock pulls out a chair and sits down, dropping the folder onto the table. John sits down again, too.
They make a strikingly unmatched pair on opposite sides of the table. John's face and his cropped hair are respectively suntanned and sun-bleached to almost the same shade of dark gold, and his eyes look startlingly blue by contrast; his clothing is worn at the edges, sandblasted and sun-softened. Sherlock's a thing of flawless, pale skin and dark, unruly hair, and in the half-dimness of the mess hall his eyes are practically colorless; the thin cloth of his suit jacket is a little crumpled across the chest, but otherwise everything about him is as pristine and polished as if it has never been worn before.
"I've read the report you made," Sherlock says. "About the women and children found dead near Musa Qala."
John tilts his head slightly in acknowledgement.
"You said they'd been dead at least a day, but less than three," Sherlock says. "How did you know?"
"Incomplete rigor mortis," John says, sliding his cup aimlessly on the tabletop. "The smell was too bad for them to have been there less than twelve hours, so that means the rigor was dissipating, not developing. Twenty-four hours is my lowest estimate for how long it would take to get to that degree of - yield. There were flies but no maggots, and that's less than three days at this time of year."
Sherlock lifts his chin, contemplating John carefully. John stares back, implacable except for the faintest creasing at the corners of his eyes.
"Had the women been raped?" Sherlock asks.
"I didn't make post mortem examinations," John says, and then when Sherlock shakes his head impatiently, "I don't think so, their clothes weren't … "
He shrugs slightly.
"The men who are missing," Sherlock says. "Would you recognize them if you saw them?"
"Yes, of course."
"As distinct from other Afghan males of the same age and general appearance, I mean."
"Yes."
Sherlock pulls a sheaf of photographs out of the folder and pushes them towards John. The original images have been enlarged and cropped to show only the grayish-white faces of the corpses. John leafs through the photographs, nodding wearily.
"Yes, these are the three from the house, but I haven't seen this man before," he says, skimming one photograph back to Sherlock. "Short hair and no beard means he's probably one of ours, though."
"Ours?"
"Um, us, law and order, the good guys - some of the good guys, maybe," John says with a quick, humorless smile. "Afghan National Army, or police, or maybe just an interpreter."
He frowns, leafing through the photographs again.
"The women and children had their throats cut," he says, "but I see the men were shot. That's neat work; it takes a bit of skill to shoot someone in the head at close range and not make a complete mess."
"You learned that in the British army?" Sherlock asks.
"No," John says shortly.
He drops the photographs onto the table and pushes them back towards Sherlock.
"It's - pretty much what I expected," John says.
Sherlock lifts his eyebrows, querying.
"Murder's more or less the standard of political discourse in Helmand," John shrugs. "You don't like someone's politics, kill them - or if you really want to make a point, kill them and their family."
"It's really that bad?" Sherlock frowns.
"This is a five-way war," John says, his face turned slightly aside as he looks up at Sherlock from under his brows. "There's us, the Taliban, the Afghans who hate us but think we're the best chance of some kind of stable future for this country, the Afghans who hate the Taliban but think they're the best chance, and the Afghans who hate all of us and just want everyone to get out of their country. It doesn't matter what side you're on, there're four other sides who want you dead. People end up like this - " he gestures at the photographs, " - all the time. A whole family, men and women and children? It's unusual, but I'd love to be able say it's never happened in Helmand before."
"Why were you interested in this family at all?" Sherlock asks. "You said you'd been at the house on previous occasions, and you were there again yesterday. Why?"
"No reason," John says. "Just the patrol route we happened to walk those days."
Sherlock shakes his head, not understanding.
"That's what we do," John says. "We walk patrols; sometimes nothing happens but most days there's some kind of a fight."
"You - walk around until you're attacked, and then you fight back," Sherlock says doubtfully. "That's the actual strategy?"
"Yes, pretty much," John says, stifling a laugh.
"Going well, is it?" Sherlock smirks.
"Going great," John says with a grin.
"What are you even doing in Sangin?" Sherlock demands, eyes vivid with amusement and curiosity.
"Helping the Afghan government secure a better future for this country," John says, his expression smoothing into pleasant neutrality.
"Not you the British army," Sherlock says, "you John Watson."
"With respect, sir, that's hardly relevant to - whatever it is you're doing here," John says, his eyes darkening slightly.
"Hmm. You think I'm prying," Sherlock says. "You think that's too personal a question to ask when I don't know you."
John's gaze slides aside and fixes on some point of nothing beyond Sherlock's right shoulder.
"All right," Sherlock says reasonably. "I know that you were a doctor, training to be a trauma surgeon, but something happened to you in Belfast that made you drop that, made you enlist in a capacity that requires a couple of O-levels and an inordinate appetite for danger. If I were prying, I'd ask what it was that happened."
John's eyes widen, his gaze falling back to Sherlock's face.
"How - how could you know - any of that?" he says.
Sherlock presses his lips between his teeth for a moment, stifling a smile.
"I don't know, I see. Your pack has an olive cross, so you're carrying augmented medical supplies. But no Red Cross patch, so you're not protected medical personnel; you're a fighting soldier. In fact, you're a commando stationed at the raw edge of this war: you're about as fighting as it gets. That means the Royal Marines wouldn't have trained you to do more than keep someone alive until real medical help arrives … yet you're a nice judge of rigor mortis and gunshot wounds to the head, and you said you didn't learn that in the army. Who else sees the results of that kind of violence often enough to learn something about it? A doctor, specializing in trauma medicine.
"The age limit for enlistment is twenty-six, so you couldn't have been more than a couple of years into specialized training when you joined up. So where would a civilian doctor have to be, say ten years ago, to see a significant number of gunshot wounds in less than two years? Royal Victoria, Belfast.
"You've been in the army ten years, and the wear on your gear tells me you've been on active combat duty a lot, multiple tours certainly. Yet you're still only a captain, so you began as a private soldier. As a doctor, as a surgeon, you could have been a medical officer with a starting rank of captain, but you deliberately chose not to do that.
"I know you well enough to ask a slightly personal question, don't you think?"
"How could you possibly know I was a surgeon?" John protests, but his eyes are alight with interest.
"Bit of a reach," Sherlock admits, "but you had a medical degree, strong nerves and small hands. If you weren't a surgeon, plenty of people must have suggested that you should be."
"That's - amazing," John laughs.
"You think so?" Sherlock frowns, drawing his chin in slightly.
"Incredible," John grins.
Sherlock exhales a smile, his expression soft and almost uncertain for a moment, and then shakes his head a little. He gathers the photographs back into the folder and stands up. John rises, too.
"Well, thank you for your time, Captain Watson," Sherlock says.
"It was very instructive," John smiles.
Sherlock turns away and John sits down again, but then Sherlock turns back abruptly.
"You didn't answer the question," he says. "What are you doing in Sangin?"
John looks up at him, eyes sharp and speculative.
"Indulging myself," he says.
"That's a rather dangerous form of indulgence," Sherlock says, his mouth quirked.
"Best kind," John says gravely.
Sherlock's gaze drops from John's face to his hands - deeply tanned and rough knuckled - and then lifts again. There's a long beat when one or other man seems about to say something more, but neither one does. Finally Sherlock turns away again and walks back to where Ormond's still waiting by the door.

Notes:

1. The names I've used for the members of John's section are names of men who fought with notable distinction and died at the battle of Maiwand in 1880, the battle in which ACD's Watson was wounded.
2. ACD's Watson was attached to the 66th Berkshire Foot, which (after a tortuous lineage of amalgamations) ended up in The Rifles regiment. However, in TGG John wears the regimental tie of 1st The Queens Dragoon Guards. There is a point of intersection between the two regiments: in 2009, the Guards' mission in Afghanistan included supplying reconnaissance and other support to 3 Commando Brigade, which also draws support staff from The Rifles. If John initially served with the Guards and later transferred to 3 Brigade, that would explain the regimental tie and place him equidistant between the ACD and Moffit-Gatiss canons. Yes, I did just construct an academic argument for making John a Green Beret; you're welcome.
3. The name 'Hinde' is, in this particular instance, pronounced to rhyme with 'pinned' not 'pined'.
 

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