Chapter 5 Two Months Later
I was visiting Sherlock in his flat one Monday morning, sitting in my favorite old chair, reading the newspaper. Sherlock was at his desk, working at the computer, well, actually, working at three laptops simultaneously. He had not spoken to me in nearly an hour and I was about to return home, when he suddenly broke his silence. Not looking up from whatever had his attention on one of the screens, he said, “John, you need to call Sarah Dunkirk in the states and tell her to come here immediately.”
I had not heard her name mentioned in the two months since we last saw her in Missouri. “Why? And why don’t you call her?”
“I have tried. I’ve called. I’ve texted. She won’t come. She’ll come for you.”
“Sherlock, it’s March—the weather’s unpredictable. Why don’t you wait a couple of months and invite her.”
“You don’t understand, John. Something is happening two days from now, and she needs to be here for it.”
“What could possibly be happening that she needs to be here?”
“I can’t explain it now. Just call her.”
“Why do you think she’d come if I call her, if she won’t come for you?”
He finally looked away from the laptop screen and focused on me. “Tell her I’m dying. Tell her I’ve contracted, oh, I don’t know, some sort of viral hemorrhagic fever. Probably only have days to live. And I’ve been asking for her. Tell her that.”
“You want me to lie to get her to come to London? Why?”
“Tell her my brother will arrange transportation. She needs to get to the airport immediately.”
“No, Sherlock. I’m not going to do it. You want her here so badly, you call her.”
“Weren’t you listening? I’ve tried. Oh, John, just tell her whatever you like, but get her here.”
I remembered Sarah’s whispered words to me in the kitchen on that day we left when she asked me if I always did what Sherlock told me to do. I told her I did because it saved time arguing. The real reason is because he’s usually right. Not always. But usually. I made the call before I realized it was four in the morning her time. Maybe it was because she was half asleep that she agreed to come. Sherlock was on the phone with Mycroft at the same time, relaying me transportation information for her. By midnight our time, one of Mycroft’s drivers had dropped her off at 221B Baker Street and she was knocking on our door.
Sherlock was watching out the window. “Go down and let here in, John.”
I hated it when Sherlock gave me orders in front of Mary. I looked at her. She had brought the baby over to Sherlock’s flat to wait with me, and was sitting on the couch. Our baby was asleep downstairs with Mrs. Hudson who had bought a baby bed for just such occasions. Mary smiled and shrugged her shoulders in a “what can you do—he’s Sherlock” silent message to me. It would have helped if he had been even a little more forthcoming in why it was so important that Sarah be here, but neither Mary nor I had been able to pry any information out of him all day.
When I unlocked the downstairs door, Sarah stood there with a bag slug over one shoulder and holding a suitcase in her hand. “John!” she exclaimed before I barely got off a greeting to her. “How is he?”
“Oh, he’s fine,” I said.
“Can I go to the hospital to see him? Oh, but I guess they don’t allow visitors this time of night, do they?”
“He’s not in hospital. He’s upstairs,” I told her.
“Why isn’t he in a hospital?”
“Because he’s…because he’s fine. Come on.” I took her suitcase and led the way up the stairs.
“I don’t understand,” she said twice while we were climbing the steps.
“Welcome to my world,” I said with a sigh.
I opened the door to the flat and ushered her in ahead of me. I could see her make a sweep of the room with her eyes. “This is Mary, my wife.” Mary stood and extended her hand.
Sarah shook Mary’s hand, then turned her attention on Sherlock, seated at his desk. He had not even looked up so far. “I’m glad to see you’ve recovered from whatever that fever was, the one with about seven syllables that John told me had a what, John? Ninety percent death rate? It must have run its course very quickly.”
“Well, those things happen sometimes,” said Sherlock, still focusing on a computer screen, which from my vantage point, appeared to be just the screen saver. “You know, good constitution. A healthy immune system. But enough pleasantries. I’ve researched you, Sarah.”
“What? You Googled me?”
“Oh, I went deeper than that. Government databases. MI6, Home Security, Scotland Yard, US State Department, CIA. The usual.”
I looked at Sarah and the blood had drained from her face, but she kept her composure. “And what did you find?”
Sherlock turned toward her, but stayed seated. “You lied to me. And you lied to John.”
Sarah caught the tip of her lower lip in her teeth and carefully considered her next words. “I might have lied to John. But I don’t believe I ever lied to you.”
“Lies by omission.”
“Well, everyone does some of that, don’t they?” she said defensively. “It’s the way we exist together in a society.”
“I suppose,” said Sherlock. “John does it all the time.”
“What?” I said.
“I believe my brother texted you just before you arrived at Sarah’s, did he not? Told you she was dangerous, and you never told me.”
“Dangerous?” asked Sarah.
I don’t know how Sherlock found out about that text. He could have seen it on my phone (since he does borrow it from time to time) or Mycroft himself might have told him. “He said she might be dangerous.” I pointed out to him. “You weren’t yourself at the time; I didn’t see any reason to bother you over it.”
Sherlock turned his attention back to Sarah. “When did you know?”
Sarah cocked her head to one side. “It was the sound of the helicopter on the morning that you arrived that brought back the memories at first. And then that first night when we were sleeping in front of the fire, and you said something about me invading Afghanistan. It was about two hours after that when I woke up to put some wood on the fire. And suddenly, it all came back to me. Not Afghanistan. Iran. I hadn’t thought about it for years. It was like I had just blocked out that whole affair in my mind. But I didn’t know for certain until the power came back on that third day you were at my house. After I found out who you were and we were able to contact John, I did some research on my own. Nothing like what you’ve done, obviously, but there’s quite a bit available just on the web. Sherlock, I’ve live in absolute fear for the past two months. I don’t even know who they are but now that I know that they know where I live and what I did, I don’t know when or what is going to happen, but I am afraid that next time it won’t be a naked man in my back yard. Next time it will be a fire bomb dropped on my house or a knock on the door and I when I open it, there will be a gun blast in my face. And I blame you for that, Sherlock. I don’t know what you did, but you awoke a sleeping giant, and I…I was unwillingly mixed up in that giant’s affairs a long time ago, and now it’s come back to haunt me. And…and…and now may I sit down? I’ve just come off a very long plane ride, although it was nice flying in a private jet. But I’m afraid I’m going to fall over any minute.”
Mary caught her as she stumbled and led her to the couch, while I got her some water from the kitchen. “Sherlock,” I said, “there are four people in this room, and two of us don’t have the faintest idea what the other two are talking about.”
“I think I know a little bit, John,” said Mary and I shot her a sharp look. “But not much,” she added, “so, I would appreciate hearing the story, too.”
“From 1979 to 1985,” Sherlock began, “Sarah Dunkirk, although she went by the name of Sarah Ward then, was involved in at least twelve successful clandestine negotiations in Iran to free foreign nationals, mostly American but some British. A total of thirty-two people, twenty-eight men and four women, owe their freedom, if not their lives, to her.”
That was hard for me to believe. The woman in front of me did not bear any resemblance to someone who could have done what Sherlock just said. And all I could think to say was, “So when you told me you were a history teacher, that was a lie?”
“Oh, no,” she quickly replied, a little too glibly. “Like I told you, I taught history for 30 years. The whole hostage/prisoner negotiation bit was just a sideline. In fact, I didn’t even get paid for it. By the way, Sherlock, I did receive a nice check from your brother for taking care of you. That was thoughtful of him.”
“Sarah,” Sherlock said, “in my research, I was unable to uncover the beginning of your tale. How and why did you become involved in this dangerous game?”
Her mood became more serious. “I was…an unwilling participant. I mean, look at me. Do I look like a hostage negotiator? I’m a jeans and t-shirt person—not a business suit and high heels…and…James Bond sophistication. The whole thing started before any of you were even born. 1970. I was a freshman in college and had an art class, a drawing class with a guy name Gameliani. I called him Gamel. We sat next to each other and shared an art locker. I suppose that part was just coincidence. It was alphabetical. I was a D and he was G. I guess there weren’t any E’s and F’s in the class. He seemed nice. We’d visit a little during class, even went out for coffee a couple of times afterwards, but we never went on a date or anything. And then, about three weeks before the end of the semester, Gamel disappeared. He stopped coming to class. I guess he dropped out which, at the time, I thought was strange with just three weeks left. On the last day of class, he still hadn’t shown back up, and we were supposed to clean out our lockers, so I took most of his stuff—there wasn’t much.
“Fast forward eight years. I’ve graduated, I’ve moved across state, I’m married, I’m teaching. And one afternoon, a black, unmarked helicopter—similar to the one you arrived in, John—lands on the playing field in front of the school and two men in suits march into my classroom in front of my students and inform me that I need to come with them. They escorted me out into the hall and down the stairs and out of the building and back to the helicopter. They didn’t even let me say good-bye to my husband, who was right across the hall. My principal was standing at the foot of the stairs and I had time to babble something to him that I didn’t know what was going on. I was scared to death.”
Mary, seated next to Sarah on the couch, took one of Sarah’s hands in her own.
“We changed planes a few times and they had clothes for me and everything. Dressed me up like some…diplomat. Told me I had been requested by a high-ranking official in Iran to negotiate a prisoner exchange. It was March, 1979. Iran to me was little more than a county on the map that I had my seventh graders learn. I knew that in January the Shah had been overthrown and that someone named Ayatollah Khomeini had taken power. The US State Department was evacuating thousands of Americans. Later that year our embassy would be overrun and hostages taken. But I got the idea that in March no one knew for sure what was going on, but whatever this thing was that involved me was top secret.”
She stopped to take a drink of water before continuing. “We landed in Tehran and I was handed off to a couple of Iranians and whisked by car to some huge compound of government buildings and ushered through lots of doors and down lots of corridors. And they left me standing outside these huge, wooden doors. I knocked and a voice in English said, ‘Come in’.” And guess who was sitting behind the most ornately carved desk I have ever seen. Gamel from my art class. He had beefed up a little since then, but I recognized him right off.
“To this day, I do not know why I was there on that trip or any of the other eleven missions that I was forced to take. I didn’t negotiate anything. Gamel already knew who he was going to release every time. Most of them were civilians—businessmen mostly and a couple of students and workers who had been arrested for seemingly minor infractions in the early days, but later just because they were foreigners who hadn’t been able to get out. I had the names of any Iranians that the US was willing to trade.”
“So what went on in the actual meetings?” asked Sherlock.
“Usually we were alone, just Gamel and me. And we just talked. He really liked the West. He was the son of a diplomat and had been raised in the US until his father had been recalled in 1970. But Gamel was really smart, and especially, in the spring and summer of 1979, when the government was in flux, he knew his position was precarious, but that the Ayatollah would need people like him in his new government…if he could keep his head down…and attached. Sometimes, especially in the later years there would be others in the room, and then we would have to talk shop, or sometimes he knew the meetings were being recorded, and then we’d play along. But all of this was totally under the table. The prisoners who were released on both sides were never to talk about it, there were no homecoming celebrations for any of them, nothing made it to the newspapers or television news. I think Gamel was just doing what little he could to help in any way he could. Obviously, he didn’t get much done, or maybe he did, when they held the US embassy for 444 days but I wasn’t involved in any of that. That was too public. Our dealings were all very secret.”
“And you were there to provide any government onlookers in Tehran some sort of legitimacy, the semblance that it was real,” said Sherlock.
“I think so. And then, in 1985, after the twelfth mission, it suddenly stopped. The first time was the only time I was dragged out of my classroom. The other times, it would be a knock on my door at home or a phone call. Of course, I didn’t know it was going to end in 1985. I waited in dread for the next time, because each time, it didn’t get any easier. In fact, my fear just grew worse. I really thought a few times that I was going to die. Especially, as women’s rights became more and more repressed under the Ayatollah’s regime. After all, I was a woman. And…and it took a toll…on my life, on my marriage.”
“You had to keep your activity secret from your husband,” said Mary.
“Yeah. The trips themselves weren’t long. We were in and out of there so fast. But what kind of cover story could I give him? Oh, I’m leaving for another weekend in St. Louis with the girls. I’ll be back in a couple of days. Secrets are not a good thing in a marriage. I guess you and John know that.”
I looked at Mary and she looked up at me. Tears filled her eyes and I knew that last part of Sarah’s story had dredged up painful memories for her, memories which I did not share. I smiled at her and wanted to say that some secrets are best kept secret.
“So, Cowboy,” said Sarah, “what did you do that brought me to someone’s attention after 30 years?”
“I think you unfairly place blame on me,” retorted Sherlock. “First of all, I must tell you that Gamel is dead.”
“After the missions ended, I thought maybe he had been discovered. I don’t think the life expectancy of government workers in some of those countries is very long, especially for those who are living a secret life.”
“No, but his death was recent, just a few months ago,” said Sherlock.
“Really? He survived all those years?”
“It would seem he stopped playing the game some time ago and just began to look out for himself—you know, follow the rules, obey commands, live a boring life. But memories in that part of the world are very long. Old grudges from decades, even centuries, ago, sometime surface. We have much shorter memories here in the West; America has the shortest of all. Last fall, I was working on a case my brother dragged me in to. I really don’t like the international cases as well. I prefer domestic crimes, the odd murder here and there, a really well-planned burglary.
“But thanks to Mycroft, I got involved with a group of irate Saudis who have been pushing hard against Iran ever since the nuclear deal that was made between the US and Iran. This group evidently has the power and the resources to hack into the Iranian data bases. It seems they were looking for files and information of historical secret deals between Iran and the US. They went back a few decades and uncovered Gamel’s negotiations with a certain Sarah Ward, Ward being your married name. I was unaware of that information at the time that I was with them, but I…uh…slipped up on something entirely unrelated to you. They are a well-funded organization, although not large, but they have managed in just a few months to worm their way into quite a few secret government files from various countries, not just Iran. They’ve managed to stay under the radar for the most part, but they’ve branched out from mere cyber espionage. There have been several cases of blackmail because of information they have uncovered and a few murders. Including mine. I was supposed to be dead when they dropped me into your backyard. Evidently the cocktail of drugs they injected into me failed in that regard.”
“But why me?”
“Oh, I think to them it was just a joke, really. A naked, dead man found in your yard? There might be a scandal, there might even be a murder investigation involving you. But, from what I’ve discovered since then, I am certain it was a warning of things to come. And you are right to be scared of further retaliation.”
“That’s not reassuring,” Sarah said. “I just wish I’d never gotten involved. That first time when they came for me, I should have refused to go, I should have fought them. I should have dug my fingernails into their faces and scratched out their eyes. They didn’t need me. Anyone could have gone in there and did what I did.” I could tell that she was forcing her tears to stay in check.
“No, I don’t think so. Gamel wanted someone, an American, he could trust. And that was you.”
“But I didn’t do anything.”
“You saved 32 lives. Thirty-two individuals made it home, people who might not have made it back without you. Thirty-two families were returned what was most precious to them. And you never received any credit for that.”
“I didn’t deserve credit because I didn’t do anything. And only 32. What difference did that make? Thirty-two’s nothing. What about the hundreds, the thousands of innocent people that didn’t get saved, that still aren’t being saved? Where are the Gamels today for them?”
“You were correct, Sarah, when you said that these negotiations were all classified. There must have been only a handful, yourself included, who knew of them. And, indeed, those who were liberated never spoke of their experiences. What kind of coercion forced them to stay silent, I do not know. It was only during the course of my investigation during the past two months that I uncovered some of what that Saudi cell had learned. Sarah, do you remember the names of any of those prisoners you rescued?”
She shook her head no and stared at her hands in her lap. “It was a long time ago. I think I blocked them all out.”
On your first mission in 1979, there were four men you rescued from an Iranian prison. Two of them had been sentenced to death. One of those two was a British national… named…Holmes.”
Mary and I both looked at Sherlock, our mouths opened. Sarah also looked up.
“He was my father,” continued Sherlock. “My mother had quit teaching at university to stay at home and become a fulltime mum. To make some extra money, my father had taken a contracting job in Iran for six months. When the Shah fled and the Ayatollah returned, my father was working in a remote area of the country and found himself arrested on a trumped-up murder charge. His execution was set for the very day that you arrived in Tehran.”
There was absolute silence in the room.
Sherlock’s next words came out slowly and deliberately. “Sarah, if you had not been there that day to arrange the release of my father, I would never have been born.”
It took a few moments for us to fully grasp the impact of that statement. And then Sarah smiled. And then Sherlock smiled.
“And Mycroft would have lived happily ever after as an only child.” Sherlock stood and walked over to Sarah and took her hands. “There are no coincidences, in this world. Every thought, every word, every action is inextricably linked to a thousand others. Two months ago, you and I met on a snow-covered bluff during an ice storm because of something that happened over thirty-five years ago half a world away. And we can trace it back even forty-five years to when you and Gamel just happened to be seated next to each other in an art class. Sarah, I am alive today twice over because you were there where you were meant to be.”
No one spoke for what seemed like ages. And then Sherlock said, “And now, Sarah Dunkirk, would you like to insure that those responsible for our meeting in the snow can never hurt you?
She did not hesitate. “Yeah, I think I would.”
I quickly jumped in. “Sherlock, what are you talking about now? What are you planning?”
“Oh, I’m not planning anything. There’s been a sting operation in the works for several months against this Saudi organization and it’s all coming to a head the day after tomorrow. We’re going to be there as…oh…uninvited guests.”
“No!” Mary and I shouted in unison. Mary continued with, “Sherlock, you can’t just barge in on something like that. You could blow the whole thing.”
“We’re just going as observers. We’ll stay out of the way,” Sherlock said. “Sarah, did you bring a gun with you? Oh, probably not. That’s all right. John and Mary have several. They’ll loan you one of theirs.”
“Sherlock!” I said. “You are mad! We can’t be there and we certainly can’t take Sarah into a situation like that.”
“Oh, John, you really have grown even more boring since you became a father.” And that was his way of dismissing any argument I had in the matter. “Now, Sarah,” he said, “Mary will show you to the room upstairs. After a good night’s sleep and a day of rest tomorrow, you should be all ready for an adventure. Oh, and John will bring you up some real tea is a few minutes, so you can see how it’s meant to taste.”
A few moments later, when the two were alone on the stairs, Mary said, “Sarah, Sherlock’s a dangerous man. He thrives on danger and he’ll put you in danger. You don’t have to do whatever this thing is that he has planned.”
“I think I do, Mary. I owe him.”
“You don’t owe him anything. You saved his life and you saved his father’s life. He owes you!
“But Sherlock doesn’t keep score quite the same way everyone else does, does he?”
“Oh, my dear,” said Mary, “he’s not even playing the same game.”