The sun was shining through the window when John Watson woke up. The shower was working just fine, he whistled along to the radio as he got ready and he was in an exceptionally good mood, feeling happy and relaxed as he descended the stairs to the living room. There was nothing at all that would have suggested what kind of a turn this day was about to take.
For all intents and purposes, it was an ordinary, quiet Saturday morning at 221b Baker Street. Sherlock was sitting in the kitchen, fully absorbed in his latest experiment and absentmindedly sipping at the cup of Yorkshire tea his flatmate had just shoved in front of him.
John, clutching a cup of tea of his own and a plate with scrambled eggs and toast, walked over to the living room, took a seat on the sofa and flipped open The Guardian. Both men were enjoying the peace and quiet that had descended upon their lodgings.
They had completed their latest case the previous day, both got a decent night’s sleep and for once there were no injuries to treat. Considering how battered they usually ended up after cases, this was a bit of an oddity.
“Hoo-hoo!” Mrs. Hudson called into the flat before stepping into the living room.
“Good morning, Mrs. Hudson,” John replied for both of them.
“I was making scones this morning and must have got the recipe wrong. I made way too many, so I thought I’d bring some up for you, dears,” she said and put a plate full of freshly-baked scones down on the table in front of John.
“Mrs. Hudson, you’re a saint!”
Even though both John and Sherlock knew it was a white lie and that she had intended to bake for them all along, they were both utterly grateful and played along. Smelling the baked goods, even Sherlock abandoned his experiment and joined John and their landlady in the main room.
John got up, poured an extra cup of tea for Mrs. Hudson, took a pot of clotted cream and some jam out of the fridge and decided not to tell Mrs. Hudson what exactly had been stored next to the cream. It’d be better if she didn’t know.
Munching their scones in blissful silence, John was flipping through the newspaper. Almost imperceptibly, he tensed, adjusted his sitting position and started reading a feature in earnest.
While Mrs. Hudson thought he’d merely shifted to a more comfortable position on the sofa next to her, Sherlock did notice the minute changes in John’s demeanour. Glancing over at his best friend, Sherlock saw his eyes flickering across the page, shoulders drawn back slightly, legs slightly apart. The stance was that of a soldier, sitting down, but fully alert and at attention.
Every few paragraphs, John’s eyebrows would rise a little. Sherlock didn’t want to ask, but he’d have to skim-read the paper later to satisfy his curiosity and find out what had caught John’s attention like that.
Judging by the fact that John had evidently adopted a stance that meant he sat ‘at attention,’ the detective deduced it had something to do with Afghanistan.
After breakfast, John excused himself and went up to his room where he stayed for more than an hour while Sherlock resumed his experiment, and later went to pick up the violin. But before be brought the instrument up to his chin, his eyes landed on the neatly folded Guardian John had been perusing earlier.
He flicked it open and didn’t have to search for long. A feature about a government cover-up, hostage situation and multiple injuries leapt out at Sherlock from pages six and seven. The feature was accompanied by photos of British soldiers (judging by the uniforms), though their faces had been pixellated, awaiting formal identification.
The article stated that in 2009, a British unit had been ambushed and taken hostage by the Taliban somewhere in the far reaches of Helmand Province. When this unit failed to make contact with the base, a tactical team and a medic had been sent after them. The report went on to say that this tactical team was overpowered as well, and the soldiers taken hostage.
Ransom demands had been sent out and the release of captured insurgents requested in exchange for the men’s lives. When none of the demands were met, the captors sent one of the British soldiers back in a body bag. A week later, another British soldier died as an apparent suicide bomber after he’d been sent into the local town’s square at gunpoint, strapped into a bomb vest.
A raid was ordered on the compound the troops were being held prisoner at. A firefight ensued; the insurgents were killed or captured. Eyewitness accounts suggested that one of the soldiers took charge of all the prisoners and organised them so that they could be as efficient as possible during the siege.
The same man, it was alleged, suffered severe wounds while protecting his unit, trying to get all the injured soldiers out of the line of fire during the stand-off. The identity of the man remained a mystery, but the eyewitnesses concurred that he was a hero and deserved to be recognised as such. According to all accounts, he had single-handedly saved the lives of all remaining prisoners and suffered greatly for his act of bravery.
Sherlock sat back deep into the sofa. ‘2009,’ he thought. ‘That’s when John was serving in Afghanistan. Maybe he had heard about this? Maybe he knew some of them or treated the prisoners at the field hospital he was stationed at. I need to find out.’
Behind him, Sherlock could hear John’s footsteps coming down the stairs to the living room. Sherlock looked up and saw that John had got changed. Where he had been sporting his favourite worn pair of jeans and the oatmeal jumper he seemed so fond of earlier, he had now changed into a dark pair of jeans, a plaid shirt, a dark blue cardigan and his brown leather shoes.
Sherlock took it all in with one look, one eyebrow slightly raised. John cleared his throat.
“I’m going out for a bit, Sherlock. I’ll order us some takeaway for later. Anything else we need, text me, okay? I can go past the shops.”
With that, John grabbed his coat and bounded down the seventeen stairs.
In one swift motion, Sherlock was back on his feet, in front of the large window, violin and bow in hand. Just as he was about to play, he caught a glimpse of John as he walked out the front door. He was greeted by an imposing-looking man. John saluted and sprang to attention. The man returned the salute and motioned for John to follow him.
‘Military training,’ Sherlock thought, amused by how easily and seamlessly John had snapped to attention. ‘Once a soldier, always a soldier.’ The detective had no doubt left that John was involved in the news story in one way or another. He’d have to ask John more about it tonight.
Sherlock turned back towards the window and the melody of God Save The Queen soon wafted through the air at Baker Street.
Across London, Mycroft Holmes had been called into a secret Whitehall meeting. He knew it was about the Afghanistan story that had appeared in the papers today. He had already secured the so-called proof the Guardian had cited as its source for the story.
Although there had clearly been a government cover-up, Mycroft himself had not worked on this issue in 2009. He had been responsible for Korea at the time.
His superiors demanded answers as to what had happened and who had been involved. The agent who had dealt with the issue initially had been assassinated in 2011, so the task of establishing timeline, identification, protocol and verification of authenticity had been transferred to the older Holmes brother.
His lovely assistant, known as Anthea to the outside world, had handed him a DVD only moments before he had been called to the meeting, and Mycroft disliked not being able to review the information beforehand. In this matter, though, he didn’t have much choice, so he asked Anthea to run facial recognition against the video from Afghanistan and contact him via her trusted BlackBerry once she had more information.
The impeccably dressed man didn’t outwardly show his nervousness to anyone. After years of working for Mycroft Holmes, Anthea could tell her boss was anxious, though. She quickly squeezed his hand once. Mycroft looked at her gratefully, inhaled deeply, pushed open the heavy wooden doors and entered the lion’s den.
When John stepped out of 221b Baker Street, he wasn’t at all surprised to find his old commanding officer, Colonel Mark Carlyle waiting for him. In fact, in light of the story he just read, he had expected it and had wisely changed into more suitable civilian clothes than the comfortable ones he’d been wearing earlier this morning.
As soon as he spotted his CO, Captain Watson snapped to attention, saluting as if the last three years of his life as a civilian GP and blogger had never happened. They’d been on first name terms out in the desert, but some habits died hard.
“Captain John Watson! So good to see you again. At ease!” Colonel Carlyle beamed.
“May I have a word with you? I trust you know what this is about?”
“Of course, Mark. And it’s good to see you, too.”
“Walk with me, John,” Carlyle said and started making his way down Baker Street. John fell into step by his side.
“Of course you were debriefed at the time. I’ve known you long enough to trust that you didn’t leak this to the press.”
“That’s right. Debriefed as soon as my condition was stable. I’ve not told a soul about this. What would I have to gain? I just don’t understand where those pictures came from, sir. It’s definitely us, it’s definitely the compound, but none of my men were carrying Audio/Visual equipment.”
“That’s what I thought, John. And believe me, we, the entire British Army, are grateful for everything you and that unit of yours did. I just regret that given the diplomatic red tape we’ve never been able to adequately show our appreciation and gratitude”, Carlyle said and stopped, fixing his gaze on the pavement at his feet.
John tensed a bit. Of course he understood that it would have created a major incident, had the truth been found out at the time. The army was trying to save face. But John couldn’t help but think that a little appreciation would have gone a long way.
While they had all recovered from their injuries, all but two were invalided home like him. They had all wound up in depressing little bedsits provided by the Ministry of Defence, but thinking back to his life in London before Baker Street, John didn’t think it had been worth all he and his unit had been through. But that is life in the army for you, and John knew what he had signed up for. He straightened up and looked at his CO. That easy smile he was known for on his face, an unassuming, almost apologetic look.
“For Queen and Country, Mark, above all else. You know that as well as I do. There’s a reason I still live by the RAMC’s motto In Arduis Fidelis,” John acknowledged.
“Faithful in adversity. How true, Captain.”
With that, they walked side by side in silence for a few minutes. Both men had their hands clasped together behind their backs like they were on a leisurely stroll through Hyde Park.
Eventually, they reached a little pub called The Gunmakers.
“Well, John, I’m not sure what the Ministry of Defence or the British Army will or will not do in light of this article. I hope they’ll do the right thing, the decent thing and own up, finally showing respect where respect is due.”
“That’s very kind, Mark. I would like to see my unit honoured for the way they dealt with their ordeal. You know me; I don’t like fame and I wouldn’t want anything for myself. We did our duty, followed our training. But it shattered our careers in Her Majesty’s service. If there is any way I can help secure treatment or housing or anything to set them up properly for civilian life, I’m happy to do what it takes. They are good men, trusted friends and colleagues.”
“That they are indeed”, Carlyle agreed, still a bit perplexed by John’s modesty although he’d never seen John ask for anything for himself in all the years they’d served together.
“Well, I don’t know what official course of action will be taken, but I insist that you at least let me buy you lunch and a pint, for old time’s sake if nothing else and a little towards showing my own appreciation. And you can tell me all about your life here and any news you might have of your unit.”
“Oh, I’m sure I can be persuaded. This is my local, after all. Though please don’t call me Captain in here. I’m just Doctor Watson these days. I left Captain Watson behind… that day. No disrespect, sir.”
“OK, then, Doctor Watson. What will you have?”
John smiled and placed his order. They talked for close to two hours, about deployments, mutual colleagues and news they had picked up.
“Nurse Montgomery is on home leave now, I’ve heard. She’s pregnant! And Corporal McLeod got married last year,” Colonel Carlyle said halfway through his second pint.
“Bastion is still the same, a few more barracks, maybe, but the place is still as big, red and sandy as ever. Field hospital’s gone a bit downhill, though. They need more people like you. You’re a damn good doctor and a fine soldier!”
“Was…” John corrected.
“Still a bloody good doctor, though.”
“Well, I’m a locum GP, a far cry from what I used to be.”
“I read all about your crime-solving in the papers, though. With that… What’s his face? That… Sherlock Holmes guy.”
“Yes, it’s rather fun and Sherlock keeps me on my toes! I’m seeing London in a whole new light, now that I’m dealing with Scotland Yard on a regular basis. We’re never bored. Sherlock’s the one solving most of the crimes, even though we’re both accredited consultants. I think I’m mainly considered bodyguard and walking medical encyclopaedia. I just write the cases up and see to it that the genius git doesn’t get himself into too much trouble. Between that and my locum work, I usually have quite a tight schedule.”
The Colonel listened intently, as John told him all about their adrenaline-fuelled cases. He never realised that he hadn’t mentioned his locum work even once during their entire conversation.