Chapter 3 -All Words Converge (part 1)

13. června 2013 v 11:46 |  English version

July 10th, continued
Camp Bastion, Helmand province
When John comes back a quarter of an hour later, Sherlock is sitting in the plastic chair at the cramped table, contemplating the screen of a very thin, steel-gray laptop.
"There's a chopper ready to go whenever we are," John says.
"I knew it. I knew the ashes were too cold," Sherlock murmurs to himself, and then says more sharply, "John, come and look at this."
He leans back in the chair as John moves forwards to look at the screen.
"What am I - oh, the hills outside Khush-i-Nakhud," John says, parsing the flicker of the images through a time-lapse sequence. "Drone pictures."
Brightness moves from right to left in the images, cloud-shadows jerk across the foreground, and black spots jitter around the houses at the foot of the hill. The pale-walled house on the shoulder of the hillside flares brightly, and then folds into a dark smudge. After several seconds, the smudge turns back into a pale-walled house as the image sequence begins again.
"So, the house was burnt down," John says dubiously. "We already knew that."
"Look at the image time-stamp for the fire," Sherlock says, looking up at John from the corners of his eyes.
John frowns at the screen. The house flares and darkens again.
"Sixteen hundred hours," John reads, "oh seven oh - wait. That's three days ago - that's two days before the American patrol said they found the men's bodies. They're lying."
"I don't think that house was burnt down to hide the fact that the men were killed there," Sherlock says, the corners of his mouth tucked in satisfaction. "I think was burnt down to hide the fact that they weren't killed there."
"The patrol that filed the report, do you know who they are?" John asks.
Sherlock dabs a fingertip on the laptop's touch pad and another tab displays. John frowns as he scans the list of six names.
"Stationed at Combat Outpost Rath," he reads. "Let's get the patrol leader choppered in to Kandahar; no point in taking you to Rath if we don't have to."
"Bad neighborhood?" Sherlock asks dryly.
"It's better than Sangin," John says, tilting his hand back and forth, "but gentrification hasn't really taken hold yet."
"All right," Sherlock says with a slight smile. "Sergeant Harlow, that's the patrol leader. Have him brought to Kandahar Air Base, and we'll talk to him after we've seen the bodies."

"Christ Almighty," John says quietly as he considers the four corpses laid out on white enamel sluice tables in the mortuary.
Sherlock moves from one body to another quickly, comparing and considering.
"Almost no bruising," he says.
"You said the bodies were abused post-mortem," John replies. "There wouldn't be bruising."
"It's perfectly possible to raise bruises on a corpse," Sherlock says peevishly. "Or whip-stripes or anything else you might fancy; it just takes a bit more application than on a living body."
John looks at him dubiously; Sherlock flashes a brief, bare-toothed smile.
"They weren't interested in simulating physical abuse, just sexual," he says. "Would you rather be beaten or raped, John?"
"I beg your pardon?" John says, his expression flickering through confusion and disgust into steady-eyed watchfulness.
"Hypothetically," Sherlock says with a faint smile. "Would you hypothetically prefer a beating or a rape?"
John flicks the tip of his tongue across his bottom lip.
"I'll take the beating, thanks," he says evenly.
"Even a bad beating?" Sherlock goads. "Even a truly brutal beating, in preference to a rape that was not particularly injurious?"
"Is this some twisted variation on shag, marry, throw off a cliff?" John says, his mouth a thin, ugly line.
Sherlock's expression folds into sly amusement, and he turns his attention back to the body in front of him.
"No marks on the hips," he announces.
John shakes his head slightly, not understanding.
"Come on," Sherlock says impatiently, "fucking someone hard: it's natural to take a hold of their hips, even when the other party's alive and enthusiastically invested in the success of the endeavor. Imagine trying to fuck a corpse with that kind of violence and no hold on the body. It's preposterous."
John blows his breath out noisily, swallows audibly. Sherlock scoops an arm under the corpse's shoulders and turns it deftly onto one side, then almost onto its front.
"There's some marking on the back, though," he says. "Darker here, lighter here."
He spreads his gloved left hand on the corpse, illustrating how the marks align with the heel of his hand and the tips of his fingers - or at least, the fingertips of someone with shorter fingers than his.
"Hold the corpse in position with the left hand," he says in an undertone, "and use some kind of implement to - "
"Christ," John grimaces.
Sherlock nods, his own expression rather strained.
"- and then turn the corpse over, and the rest was simple knife work," he concludes.
He goes back to the one corpse that is short-haired and clean-shaven.
"The words cut into this one," he says. "What do you think about the blade used, John?"
"What do I - think about it?" John echoes.
"Sharp, or dull?" Sherlock asks, clearly exerting every fiber of his being in a heroic display of patience.
"Oh, uh - serrated, and fairly dull," John says. "There's quite a bit of damage at the edges of the cuts."
"Why would someone choose a dull blade for such a fiddly task?" Sherlock frowns. "The result is quite neat but it must have taken considerable time and attention."
"Maybe they didn't have a sharp blade," John shrugs.
"Look at the genital mutilation," Sherlock says, almost rolling his eyes.
John forces his gaze downwards.
"No, really look at it," Sherlock insists. "Look at the edges of the cuts."
"They're clean," John says, "very clean - this was done with something extremely sharp."
"So they had a sharp blade," Sherlock says, "but they chose not to use it for the text - oh, of course."
John tilts his head questioningly.
"Legibility," Sherlock says, as if the word is a soft-edged satisfaction in his mouth. "Cuts made with a scalpel, especially on a corpse, tend to collapse together again very neatly. Some of the lines would be almost invisible in a photograph."
"But you could still see them in real life," John says.
"Which means the message is meant to be conveyed by photographs of the body, not by the body itself," Sherlock says, his eyes skimming over the long, white lines of the corpse.
"Conveyed to who? And by who?" John asks.
"Whom," Sherlock corrects absently, his attention still on the short-haired, clean-shaven corpse again. "We have to identify this one. None of this is going to make sense until we know who he is, and why the house at Khush-i-Nakhud is significant. "Let's go and talk to Harlow."
Sergeant Harlow is waiting for them in a small room furnished with only a table and two straight-backed chairs. He stands when they enter, but John waves him down into his chair again as Sherlock drops the manila file folder onto the table. Harlow is everything Hollywood likes to think American servicemen are: tall and broad, with inky brown eyes, buzz-cut black hair, and skin tanned to a deep caramel. He's soft-spoken, with just a hint of drag on his vowels. He gives Sherlock a single up-and-down look, but eyes the green beret tucked into the epaulet of John's shirt with a lingering gaze of mixed defiance and desire.
"Sergeant Harlow, I have some questions about your - adventure, on patrol outside Khush-i-Nakhud," Sherlock says.
"Uh, which particular one, sir?" Harlow says with a slight smile. "That patrol route's a bit of a party at the best of times."
"The one where you found the corpses of four men who'd been murdered, raped, and mutilated," Sherlock says flatly.
Harlow looks doubtfully from Sherlock to John, and then back at Sherlock.
"With respect, sir, I think you've got me confused with someone else," he says. "We've never found anything like that."
"You - you're saying you didn't report finding the bodies of four men yesterday?" Sherlock blinks.
"No, sir, not us," Harlow says, shaking his head.
"Your section's call-sign is on the report," Sherlock says, drawing a page of text from the folder and sliding it towards Harlow.
Harlow picks it up. His slight scowl turns to a deep grimace as he reads.
"I - I just don't know what to say to you, sir," he says, handing the page back to Sherlock. "I didn't write this. We don't even go up that hill on routine patrols. I guess some other section did, and somehow our call-sign got attached to the text of their report."
"That's your story?" Sherlock says.
Harlow flashes John a sharply querying look, which John studiously declines to respond to.
"It's not a story, sir. It's the truth," Harlow says crisply. "You can ask the rest of my section. They'll tell you the same thing."
"I'll certainly be putting that theory to the test," Sherlock says.
"Will that be all, sir?" Harlow asks John.
"Yes, thank you, Sergeant. Dismiss," John nods. "Tell the watch-officer you're done here. There's a chopper waiting for you - you can get back to your post before dark."

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