Chapter 2 - South of the Ordinary (part 1)

12. června 2013 v 10:32 |  English version

July 10th, continued
Camp Bastion, Helmand province
Accommodation Block Three is a long, low building with whitewashed walls, a flat roof, and an air conditioner droning in every window. Sherlock's quarters consist of a room cluttered by a single bed, small table, folding chair, and narrow closet, and a bathroom with toilet, spit-sink, and a shower-head that drains directly into a metal grating set in the concrete floor.
He drops his duffel bag on the aggressively well-made bed, puts the folder on the table, and hangs his coat in the closet. He unzips his bag and starts taking out the contents one-handed, using his other hand to place a call and hold his phone to his ear.
"I need to see the men's bodies, and the place they were found," he says, shaking the folds out of a white chambray work shirt.
"The bodies were taken to Kandahar Air Base," Mycroft says. "You're closer to where they were found, near Khush-i-Nakhud. I'll arrange for Captain Ormond to take you there first, and then to Kandahar."
"Not Ormond," Sherlock says as he surveys a pair of khaki cargo pants. "Give me John Watson."
"They're soldiers, not indentured servants, Sherlock," Mycroft says wearily. "I can't just give you one."
"Don't be modest, Mycroft," Sherlock rumbles, "of course you can. Besides, I'm only borrowing him. You can have him back when I'm done."
"What's wrong with Ormond?" Mycroft asks.
"Oh, just the same thing that's wrong with almost everyone," Sherlock sighs. "I'll work better with John."
"I'll have Captain Watson re-assigned as your escort," Mycroft says after the very slightest pause.
"I'll be genuinely sorry to solve this case," Sherlock smirks, turning over a tan leather hiking boot and examining the rugged sole. "It's making you so agreeable."
He hears the little sipping inhalation that means Mycroft's going to lecture; he cuts the call, tosses his phone onto the bed, and shrugs his suit jacket off.
Half an hour later, Sherlock is rolling his shirtsleeves up on his forearms and ruffling his fingers though his damp hair. The clothes Mycroft has provided are, of course, perfect. Not merely in function - a substantial white shirt, indestructible cargo pants, and hiking boots meant for actual hiking - but also in sensibility: everything's finely made, streamlined and smooth. Sherlock has never outfitted himself for a war zone, but if he did, these are clearly the exact items he would have chosen for himself.
"Mister Holmes, sir; it's Captain Watson," John says from the other side of the door, with a rap of knuckles against hollow core wood.
Sherlock opens the door. John looks up at him, chin tucked and eyes rueful.
"Sherlock," Sherlock corrects. "I certainly intend to call you John."
He moves back to the bed, and starts gathering his discarded clothes into his bag. John comes in and closes the door behind him. He clasps his hands behind his back, squares his shoulders, and lifts his chin. Sherlock glances at him, querying.
"I'm just informing you that I've received my re-assignment orders," John says. "And that my section is being choppered in from Sangin to provide security for you off-base."
"Is that necessary?" Sherlock frowns.
John hesitates before answering, and when he does, his voice is clipped and flat.
"Our control on the ground in Maiwand district is patchy at best, and security allocation is always a balance between the likely risk and the value of the - person, in question. I'm sure this allocation was made appropriately, based on information that I don't have access to."
"You have questions," Sherlock says, his frown dissolving into indulgent amusement.
"Absolutely not, sir," John says coolly. "I have orders."
"Oh, John, that's no use to me," Sherlock says, tossing his head. "I need you to ask questions - if I needed someone to just stare at me, I'd have kept Ormond."
John's bland expression fractures into surprise and then sharpens into outright curiosity.
"You'd - all right, then," he challenges. "Who are you? What are you doing here? You're important enough to warrant pulling a commando section off the front-line to be your security detail, yet you're asking questions about women and children who weren't considered worth the price of the bullets it would have taken to shoot them."
"I'm a consulting detective," Sherlock says, "or rather, the consulting detective; there aren't any others. I'm here to solve a mystery."
"I don't understand," John says.
"Don't worry. It's early days yet," Sherlock says, looming close enough to win a wary flick of John's eyelids. "I have high hopes for you."
John's mouth curls slightly. Sherlock pulls away, takes up the folder from the table, and extracts out the photographs that Mycroft brought to him.
"The men weren't just shot," he says, handing the pictures to John.
"Christ," John grimaces. "Oh, Christ."
Sherlock watches intently as John gathers himself again.
"You're - you're looking for the people who did this?" John asks, lifting his gaze to meet Sherlock's. "That's the mystery, right?"
"Finding out who is just a side-reaction," Sherlock says, shaking his head. "Finding out how and why is the part that's fun."
"Yeah, that's an interesting use of the word fun," John murmurs. "So the mystery is - why someone would brutalize an enemy in wartime?"
"Everything you see in those pictures was done after the men were shot," Sherlock says.
"That's - y'know, I don't actually know that makes it better or worse," John scowls.
"The mystery is, why did the perpetrators want to produce the effect, but not actually indulge in the process?" Sherlock says. "The bodies were found by an American patrol in a house near Khush-i-Nakhud. The crime scene's always a good place to start."
"I'll have a chopper ready to go when my section gets in," John says. "We can be in the air in half an hour or so."
Twenty-five minutes later, they're walking up to a helicopter standing on the concrete at the edge of the airfield. John dumps his pack, rifle, and helmet into the open bay door. He's already wearing his body armor, but he's carrying a second set.
"Put this on," he says, holding it out to Sherlock.
Sherlock puts down his greenish-gray nubuck backpack, and takes the armor. He scowls, turning it around in his hands as if he can't figure it out.
"It's non-negotiable - just like when your mum used to tell you to put a hat on or you couldn't go outside," John says, taking the armor back from him and peeling the tapes apart.
"My mother never said any such thing to me," Sherlock says with a slight smile.
John reaches up to swing the shell of the armor around Sherlock's shoulders.
"It is really necessary for you to be quite so tall all the time?" John complains.
"I could kneel," Sherlock says creamily.
John arches an eyebrow, one corner of his mouth lifts fractionally, and he jerks the armor's tapes closed with rather more vigor than is strictly necessary. Sherlock's smile widens, even as he catches one side of his lower lip in his teeth. Another helicopter comes in and lands a short distance away. Seven soldiers in pale camouflage combat clothing, body armor, and helmets pile out and jog across the concrete towards Sherlock and John.
"Sherlock, this is Two Two One Bravo Baker section, Echo Company, Forty Commando," John says, when the soldiers gather around them. "This is my second, Sergeant Blackwood. If I'm down, he's in charge."
Sherlock glances sharply at John, who smiles back placidly before returning his attention to his soldiers.
"Gentlemen," he says, "this is Mister Sherlock Holmes. For the purposes of this operation, Mister Holmes is - and I know he'll excuse me for saying this - the package. We're going onto the ground outside of Khush-i-Nakhud; as of oh nine hundred hours today, drone surveillance showed no Taliban activity in the area - but if we have contact, our number one priority will be to get the package safely back in the air. Sherlock, you stay with me. You need to be close enough to touch me, every single second we're on the ground. Do you understand?"
Sherlock nods emphatically.
"All right," John says, turning away and waving a hand at the pilot sitting in the cockpit.
The helicopter's rotors start to turn and the air stirs, then the rotors kick into high gear and the air churns. Sherlock shoulders his backpack, but John touches his arm and gestures for him to wait. The others climb aboard to sit on the bay floor. John shrugs his pack on, tips his helmet onto his head, and slings his rifle across his chest.
"Henn, if you're riding out, take the other side," he says when he sees the young man hanging back. "I'm taking Mister Holmes on this one."
"Yes, sir," Henn sings out, flashing a grin at Sherlock before jogging around to the other side of the helicopter.
"I take it I'm riding out too?" Sherlock says, as John steps up into the bay and unclips a pair of safety lines from the fuselage above the open doorway.
"Sit down," John smiles, gesturing to edge of the bay floor.
Sherlock sits in the doorway, his feet dangling. He watches with interest as John clips one line to Sherlock's armor and the other to his own. John sits down next to him, yanks experimentally on both safety lines, and takes his tinted glasses out of the front pocket of his body armor.
"Let's go," he yells over the noise of engines and rotors and buffeting air, and as he slips his glasses on he says, "welcome to the most beautiful war in the world, Sherlock."
The helicopter lifts, turns, and slides forwards. The rotor turbulence billows around them, tossing Sherlock's hair and baffling their clothes against their limbs.
The ground below is parchment-colored, thickly covered with stones that have been combed into waving, curling patterns by sand storms: a place as barren and beautiful as the moon. They're traveling at a hundred and fifty miles an hour, but the empty, cloudless sky above and the flat, featureless ground below make it seem as if the helicopter is hanging motionless. The air smells of nothing but light and emptiness. Sherlock stares and stares, letting the brightness and the blankness and the great silence beyond the engines' droning and the rotors' beating soak into him.
As they travel east, the ground gradually begins to form folds and furrows, with grayish green hazes of scrub growing in the low places. The encircling sky bleaches from blue to steel white as the sun climbs to the zenith, and the ground below is gilded and shimmering in the heat. The terrain rises, layers of rock shelving up out of the earth, with deep ravines shadowed by blue-green pines and sudden outbursts of yellow-green where rain water collects. They pass over Khush-i-Nakhud, a small town center and a loose knot of streets, with a broad scatter of surrounding house compounds. The helicopter follows the thread of road that leads east out of the township, towards a dozen or so compounds at the foot of a range of steep hills.
"There," John says, pointing to a plateau on one of the hills. "There's the house where - "
He and Sherlock both scowl. The house is clearly a ruin, blackened and broken by fire.
"Well that's unhelpful, if intriguing," Sherlock says. "Down - let's go down."
The helicopter swings downwards to land next to the ruin of the house. John unclips the safety lines and they step down, followed by the rest of the men.
"McMath, take your guys and get up on the hill a bit - see what you can see," John says.
McMath gathers his three men with a turn of his chin and they lope off past the ruin of the house. The others move aside as the helicopter steps back into the air, tilting and then curving upwards again.
"A chopper on the ground's too vulnerable to RPG attack," John says to Sherlock. "He won't go far; we can call him in again if we need him in a hurry."
Sherlock nods, watching as the helicopter circles out of sight behind the crest of the hill. The five of them walk into the charred remains of the house, Blackwood and Henn on either side and slightly ahead of Sherlock, with John just behind and to the right of him, and Hinde following more distantly. Up close, the destruction is even more impressive; blackened roof timbers have fallen among the smoke-streaked walls, leaving the wreckage open to the sun and sky.
"What the hell happened?" Henn asks. "Lightning strike?"
"Maybe a drone attack," Blackwood says. "Picture analysis is useless; I've seen them bomb a tree."
"Bugger that, I've seen then bomb us," Henn snorts.
"Accelerant fire," Sherlock says. "You can smell it … well, I can smell it."
"Accelerant?" John says. "You mean - "
"Someone's tried to destroy the evidence," Sherlock says.
He takes a pair of blue nitrile gloves from his backpack, pulls them on, and crouches down to dig his fingers into the charred crust of the ground.
"The men's bodies were found about fourteen hours ago," he says. "So the fire must have happened after that. There's no residual heat though. How cold does it get at night here?"
"Um, not very, not at this time of year," John says.
Sherlock frowns as he stands up again. He looks around discontentedly for a moment, before beginning to pick his way back out of the ruin. He stops abruptly and stoops to pick something small and brightly metallic off the ashes.
"It's a uniform button," John says, leaning in to look. "It's American - you said it was an American patrol that found the men's bodies."
"Yes, but this was dropped here after the fire, not before," Sherlock says. "Look, it's clean, no fire deposit on it."
"You think the Americans did this?" John says, his glance encompassing the blackened ruin of the house.
"I think someone wants me to think that," Sherlock smiles crookedly.
He walks out of the ruin, John following close behind. Sherlock goes to where a slight tumble of rocks edges a steep cleft that runs from above the house to the plain below. Sherlock scrambles up onto the rocks, and then down into the cleft. John follows him; Blackwood and Henn climb up onto the rocks but don't come down into the cleft, while Hinde remains on the other side.
"Why here?" Sherlock says quietly, looking up and down the hillside. "John, is it even feasible to get a truck up this trail?"
"God, no," John says, surveying the stone-embedded slope. "It's not even really a trail; it's mostly a flood-wash."
"So, the only way up here is on foot or by helicopter," Sherlock says. "This is hardly a convenient place to commit a quadruple murder."
"So, then, why here?" John asks.
"Don't know," Sherlock says absently, "not yet, but accelerant. It took quite a bit to burn this house so thoroughly. It must have been brought in by helicopter."
"Sherlock, the only people with choppers are us - I mean, military, police, government," John says. "So it was the Americans who burned this place down?"
"Do try to stop fixating on the Americans," Sherlock says mildly.
There's a sudden sharp crack from farther up the hillside. John shoves Sherlock down and against the side of the cleft, shielding him with his body as he swings his rifle up to his shoulder. Blackwood and Henn jump down from the rocks and shoulder in on each side of Sherlock.
"That's contact," McMath says in John's earpiece, over a further ragged scatter of shots.
"What have we got?" John says into his radio microphone.
"I don't know - they're in the turn of the rocks at the top of the cleft," McMath says. "I can't get a line of sight. The good news is, neither can they. They're pretty much shooting blind."
"All right," John says. "Make them keep their heads down."
There are several bursts of semi-automatic fire from farther up the hillside, with single shots in response.
"Hinde, anything on icom?" John calls to Hinde, who's crouched on the other side of the rocks.
"No, sir," Hinde shouts back. "They may not be Taliban, just local freelancers."
"Is that any better?" Sherlock asks acidly.
"It means they're probably not capable of taking down a chopper," John says pleasantly.
He thumbs the radio control on his chest.
"This is Two Two One Bravo Baker requesting an immediate off from our last drop point, over," he says clearly.
The distant drone of the helicopter grows louder and then drops in pitch as it comes to circle in overhead.
"Hinde, leg it over there and give me some covering fire from that side," John calls as the helicopter touches down again next to the ruin of the house.
Hinde runs half-crouched across the open ground and drops to one knee in the lee of the helicopter.
"When I tell you to run, you are going to run like you've never run before," John says to Sherlock. "And you're going to keep running until you hit that chopper, okay?"
"You told me to stay with you," Sherlock says.
"And now I'm telling you to go to Hinde," John says, lifting his eyebrows until Sherlock nods his acquiescence.
"McMath, give them hell; we're moving the package," John says.
Bursts of gunfire break out higher up the hillside. John scrambles up onto the rocks, his rifle raised.
"Sherlock, run," he shouts.
Sherlock clears the rocks in one clean thrust and sprints across the open ground. The second he's got one foot on the floor of the helicopter bay, Hinde swings round and shoves him the rest of the way in and scrambles aboard behind him.
"Go!" Hinde yells at the pilot. "Go."
"We're not going without them," Sherlock says, surging for the doorway though the helicopter is already lifting.
Hinde stops him with a hand in the middle of the chest.
"With respect, sir, you're not in charge of this," Hinde says steadily. "They'll be fine, now they don't have a civilian to worry about. They'll get another chopper in and be off the ground before we get back to base."
Sherlock grimaces a little, but then nods reluctantly.

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