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An Average Man – wordcloud

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I’ve just posted the penultimate chapter of An Average Man to FFnet and AO3, so I also created the Wordcloud for it.

wordcloud - average man

Written by Srebrna

2018/07/26 at 22:39

Average Man – CH 05

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The cosy little hotel Anthea had booked for him was just perfect. The room was small, but adequate for a week stay, a dresser, a fridge, a wardrobe and a bed. And a desk, set just in front of the wide window, overlooking the bay. Exactly opposite the block of interest.

He pulled on the curtains from the left a bit to cover what he was setting up on the desk and quickly unpacked the heavy set of night vision equipment. The set with standard camera was second, set in such a way that the curtain had to barely be moved when he would need to record.

He found the phone in the room safe, the code having been e-mailed from Mycroft’s secondary address to his base account. Turning it on was a matter of seconds, but waiting for it to boot, connect and download the secure messages took long enough for John to unpack his “elderly uncle” persona. The car he had driven from Kotor was only reinforcing that image – small, rather worn, but sturdy. Just like himself.

Now, into the breach. Or town.

 

####

 

“God bless local kids” John said with a feeling. “There is a group of youngsters in Dobrota who has a number of interesting characteristics.”

Mike made a vague ‘go on’ sound as he attached yet another marker.

“One, they watch a lot of American movies and so their English is pretty good. Two, they are local – and I mean, local for generations – and they hate outsiders. Three, they think I’m less of an outsider than the fucks who had taken over one of the palazzos and promptly fired the cleaning crew. Four, three women of the crew are the kids’ mothers and a sister. Aforementioned fucks are, apparently, from out of town and with no claim of ancestry around here, so with my great-grandmother being from Dobrota I seem much more like a local. And they like the way I speak.”

Mike raised his eyebrows.

“They watch a lot of Bond” John explained, blushing. “They asked if I was a spy, because spies speak with Scottish accent, and this is what I used when I went to town. I pointed out that there are many other Scots out there, starting with David Tennant, so they asked if I’m a Timelord. God help me.”

“Even though Tennant doesn’t use his natural accent in the series” Mike reminded him.

“He does, but just for a moment. OK, what now? Jumping jacks?”

“To start with, yes. Then some weight lifting, pull-ups and push-ups. I need to see the whole range today.”

“God, I wonder how women do it” he grimaced and started stretching. “I always looked at the ladies who did the morning exercises and thought I’d die of boredom if I had to do the same bloody thing every day.”

“And then you joined the Army.”

“And then I joined the Army, yes. And now I’m playing an overgrown guinea pig.”

“Maybe a lab rat” Mike corrected. “You’re too lean and mean for a guinea pig. They are cuddly and soft.”

“Are you saying I’m not cuddly, doctor Stamford?” John jumped a few times, slapping his hands over his head.

“Not my type” Mike snorted. “But I bet if you asked the girls, they would tell you I am cuddly, and you are more on the… deadly side.”

“I’m sure if I made an effort, I could be both cuddly and deadly” John smirked. “You know. Dangerous package – all soft on the surface…”

“…and all killer inside. Like the Monty Python rabbit.”

“Oh, so now I’m a rabbit? Thanks.”

Mike pressed a few keys and motioned him to the weights and the bench.

“Isn’t rabbit better than a lab rat?”

John picked up two small dumbbells and started lifting them above his chest.

“May be. Rabbits I meet tend to be weirder than norm. One actually glowed in the dark.”

 

####

 

“So you made some friends in the town?” James raised a cup and John nodded.

“Yes, some nice kids decided they like me better than these idiots who had rented the palace. I think this will be the right place, by the way. No other house had changed hands or was rented long-term recently, and all the others are either empty or have temporary workers inside. Also, these clever men had fired a cleaning crew, comprised mostly of local women.”

“Which means there are families in the town now that are simply looking for someone to hear their story.”

“And I have provided the right type of ear to have it all related to me. In detail. Also, the cleaning ladies know the house in detail, from cellar to the attic. It’s not as good as a blueprint, but they are precise enough. And the community is happy to tell me their woes, because, apparently, I have the right accent…”

Sholto choked on his tea.

“Wait, what?”

“They watch a lot of Bond. Don’t ask me. Don’t even ask.”

“So they think you are an agent…?”
“No, they allowed themselves to be convinced I’m a tourist who speaks with a nice, trustworthy movie accent. I tried not to go too ‘grandpa Watson’ on them, because that would have been a mistake, and apparently I had hit just the right register to be compared to Sean Connery. Stop laughing, James, this was a perfect stroke of luck.”

“So, what are you going to do?”

John pulled out the large printout of one of the waterfront houses.

“I have to get inside, knock the personnel out, fetch the two targets and get out. I have contacted a friend from our last location” he paused and drank his tea in silence for a moment. “He has a perfect solution. The Japanese had developed a compound used to subdue panicking passengers in the underground. It’s tasteless, scentless and apparently doesn’t have any known side effects. Can be carried in containers the size of a thermos flask and doesn’t require high concentration to start having effect. And they gave me a handful of masks that filter it.”

“But how are you going to distribute it? It’s not like they are going to quietly gather in one room so you can flood it with the gas.”

His mouth quirked in a half-smile.

“That would be where the cleaning ladies’ intelligence comes in.”

 

####

 

“I’ll need some more stuff, starting with heat detectors…”

The young soldiers in the storage unit watched him in awe as they took their notes.

“Will you need some climbing equipment? Grappling hook and so on? You need to get to the palazzo on the seaside, right?”

He sent them a withering glare.

“Yes, but I won’t be scaling the waterfront, I’m not the bloody Spiderman”

They actually giggled. Like schoolgirls.

Dear Lord, he was much too old for that.

Just this once, Mycroft. This once, I save your hide and the hide of your agent and I hope I can find some adequate way for you to pay me back. A month in some nice, sunny and possibly uninteresting place will be a good start.

 

####

 

“OK, so three days worth of injections go into this cooler case” Mike held up a small insulated bag. “The movement trackers are here, and I’ve installed the needed recording software on your laptop. Injection every twelve hours, no more than half hour of delay. Nine and nine, that should be easy. No alcohol. No other medicines. No drugs. You can take painkillers, normal daily dose of ibuprofen. Nothing else. Record movement range every time you can. If you are stuck in the room longer, do it hourly. If you go out, just do it any time you can. You know the routine. Record each injection time and reactions, if any. Anything, including smallest twinges of pain, heat, tension. You know the drill.”

“Perfectly” he nodded, picking up two boxes and the bag. “I’ll be back in three days, or I’ll let you know that I’ll need another set.”

“No problem. I can entertain myself analysing whatever we’ve managed to collect by now. If I find any definite trend, I’ll let you know what you should take into account.”

“Let me know in case these trends say that arm is going to fall off without warning. That would be a downer.”

“Were you climbing at that point, in more ways than one.”

“Ha bloody ha.”

 

####

 

He sat at the desk overlooking the bay and observed a group of bumbling blonde haired ladies laughingly tripping all over themselves on the board of a small boat. The girls were all rather lovely, fit and slim, well-padded where needed and dressed in appropriately skimpy costumes.

They were also equipped with earpieces and were happily manoeuvring the boat exactly where he needed it.

“The white-fronted building with seven large windows on the ground floor” he instructed.

“Have it, sir” one of them giggled and ran down to the cabin.

The image on his screen changed, finally showing him the thermal imagery of the house he had been focusing on.

Ah.

“Thank you, ladies, please keep this position, or, if you have to move, keep the focus on that same building. We need recording of as much of their movement as possible.”

“Yes, sir. Not a problem. We’ve got the boat for three days. We could try moving closer, if needed, too. I’ve observed several more boats just like ours, including one full of what seems to be…”

“A stag night on water, Sesse. Sorry, sir, but she tends to go on so. We can move at least half a click towards the target, if you need better quality.”

“Keep at it, ladies, and yes, get closer if you can. Record all the time. Sometimes even the most impossible detail becomes a key. I need as much as I can of that house. Will let me know where to expect everyone. The more we can tell…” he trailed off. “Keep the picture as steady as you can, now. Dear God.”

They were consummate actresses, these girls. Only the one at the instruments was showing any kind of thought on her face, and that could have been attributed easily to her being responsible for their not getting thrown into the clear waters of the Boka. The others presented a believably vapid, absent countenance and continued to sun themselves and drink alcoholically-looking liquids from the variety of bottles, just like any other group of out-of-towners barely smart enough to get out of the port.

“Sir, what is it?”

“Go closer and to the left, keep the camera trained on the house, steadily. We will need the ground team to confirm it, but I think we have our man. See the figures on the screen, one of them is spread in a rather unnatural position…”

She made a dismayed sound.

“Sir, I see him. They have him tied to something. Maybe a bedframe? Looks like he is hanging a bit over the floor.”

“That would be it, yes. Bedframe or something they had cobbled from whatever discarded wood they had. I suppose the guy is not in any state to try to free himself. Yes, that looks more and more like it. Can’t make out the others, but they are all up and about, so I’d guess none of them is the second prisoner.”

“Sir, there is one more signal, on the upper floor. I saw it when I was adjusting the position. We are too close to catch all three floors at the same time, but, see, now I’ve pointed it at the attic.”

There was a source, immobile in the middle of the day. By shape, curled up.

Irene.

“Thank you, Lt Stevens. Keep at it until dark, give me as much footage as you can. I have software putting it together into a heatmap of their activity, so the more you can give me, the better.”

“But won’t our moving around disturb the map?” she was worried, and he felt thankful for it.

“My friends from the US contingent had given me this smart little piece of software that reads your position and adjusts the outcome according to it. If you were closer and moving just outside the house, it could have given us a proper 3D map, what with the floor plan we have would have been even better. This will suffice for now, however. I need you to keep this focused on the ground floor and track if and when they go upstairs. This will give me the window of opportunity to get inside the house, so please do pay attention.”

“Yes, sir!”

“Does this mean you’ll be climbing into the attic, sir? We can still requisition that grappling hook, if necessary.”

“No, I will not be climbing using a hooked rope, like I’m besieging a medieval fortress. Or rescuing a damsel from her tower. No. I will manage this with the equipment I have. Now, you six, good luck.”

“Good luck, sir!”
“You know what to do if you get spotted?”

“Sure!”

He fretted at the lack of details but he hoped they really had been properly briefed. They were not in any manner agents or experienced operatives, but they were coping well enough and their input in the surveillance part of the task was enormous. They would be later joining another group, and together they would be hitting the area on foot. Anthea had provided them with a full set of new identities and they played the role of bored, idle socialites to the hilt. They were, supposedly, on a pre-wedding trip for one of them, a prolonged hen-night in a manner of speaking. They were drinking, driving around the tiny city and, as of today, sailing in the bay. The day after they were scheduled to do some walking and photo-shooting, and nobody would be able to recognise that two out of seven cameras carried by the “bridesmaids” would be somewhat more advanced than what a normal tourist would be sporting. They were planning to wear slightly more sophisticated clothes (definitely more than they were wearing right now) and would be posing in different combinations of ladies and supposedly cute objects, using a variety of buildings as their background.

Nobody should notice that one of them would be actually using her camera to record their surroundings constantly. And nobody would know that she was not, in fact, recording their surroundings, but the interior of one specific building.

 

####

 

The best came out of paying attention (and a fortune in small change) to the few disgruntled youngsters whose mothers were in the cleaning crew that had been fired from the mansion. With that one simple action the gang had almost ensured John’s success.

The boys had access, due to their mothers’ profession, to unused houses all around the area. That included the palazzo two up from the house in question, and that one was sporting an attic and a small tower. When on the next day the women went through that house on their monthly scheduled cleaning, the boys helped them to carry their equipment and cleaning solutions and then scaled the stairs to the tower and, quite blatantly, watched the town from that slightly elevated point. There were four of them in the tower, but at any given time only three were visible. The fourth was busy installing the surveillance equipment according to John’s instructions. Once they were satisfied both with the steady picture – from a new angle – and they were reasonably sure the camera was well-hidden, they traipsed down to join their mothers and help them remove the carpets for cleaning outside, thus justifying their presence in the house.

This input was the final piece that John needed. The person at the top of the house had to be Irene. At that proximity and with a stable position, the software could do much fancier things than just adjustments of the distortion to create a heatmap. It could try to assign certain values, like height and weight of person observed, and it was suggesting the person kept upstairs weighted no more than a hundred pounds. Since they had started the surveillance, she had barely moved, but never when other people entered. He had “witnessed” one of the visitors touching her – and more than touching, judging from how he raised his arm repeatedly. He ground his teeth and waited.

Soon, Irene. Soon.

The photos taken by the girls mapped the downstairs in pretty detailed 3D, giving him a good map of their movements during the day. Nobody left the ground floor except whoever was going upstairs to Irene. They were not using the second floor at all, only the ground floor and the attic. Which was very, very good. The fact that nobody was going downstairs, to the cellar, was just perfect.

During the night he got a confirmation of the sleeping arrangements, and they repeated the pattern from daylight hours – all in one place, except for a lone guard on the top floor and one in the kitchen, which had the door facing the side alley.

He was most interested in finding out whether any of them had been using the old and broken bathroom (from the report of the cleaning women, broken longer than they remembered). It was the only room in the house that would be hard to fill with the gas, as it had rather good and heavy door.

All was good. Now was time to plan properly.

And to finally go out there and do the planned walk down the waterfront, talking again to the cafe owners and comparing the pictures from great-gran Aneza’s album to the reality. He had to dress properly.

 

####

 

“Mister Anderson?” the boy knocked on his door, whispering throatily. “Mr Anderson, they say there will be a big thing coming later this week. There is another gang that wants to deal with these idiots and they are willing to trade for access to the prisoner. They have an old thing about him, they say.”

“He must have pissed of an enormous numbers of people.”

“Nataliya from the bakery says the other gang had tried same other thing before, but now they got smarter and they want to trade instead of shooting their way in.”

“Good for them” he grumbled, letting the boy in. “When is it going to happen?”

“Natalia didn’t hear it, but they said something about waiting for some delivery. Not sure what it was, but they want to make sure the deal is agreed before and they want to pick the guy up after that delivery arrives.”

“Did they say anything about the new place they’d be moving him to?”

The boy shook his head.

“But she said they… they said that that man takes it like a girl and so they are planning to see how well he can do that. And that their boss was going to sample that ass.”

Argh.

“Thank you… Vitia, right? OK, Vitia. Make sure everyone has their eyes and ears open. I need to know who the new guys are and where they come from, and I need information the moment they seem to be getting any package.”

“Sure will, Mr Anderson, sir. What else?”

“Keep out of sight, all of you.”

He felt bad for using the kids, but there was no other way. If there were any creatures more ignored in the city than pigeons, these kids were. As long as they didn’t loiter in big groups, one or two kids more in any area wouldn’t get noticed. And these boys were already skipping school anyway – to help their mothers in their cleaning jobs. The money offered by John for any piece of information had probably by now more than offset the loss they had incurred when they were removed from the palazzo, and he tried to focus on that.

And hopefully if the gang vacated the palazzo, they would have their jobs back and there would be a lot of cleaning to do.

 

####

 

Injection. Temperature check. Local temperature check around the wound. Synchronise the wrist tracker. Put on the tracing markers. Run the software. Do exercise. Record outcome.

Update Mycroft.

He picked up the phone and chose the first number saved.

I’ve got new intel. Going in tonight.

The second phone, issued on base.

Today, pattern three. Remember to have the female medic ready.

There was no need for confirmation or other explanations.

 

####

 

He spent the evening putting the gear together. Minimising the risk of something slipping, lashing the straps all about him, packing the gas container and the needed tools in their appropriate compartments. He ate a light dinner and sat on the balcony, smoking a pipe (like a proper middle-aged Englishman), watching the colours of the sky shift slightly.

A slight breeze brought the smells of food from nearby eateries and the salty smell of the sea as a background to all of them. It was quiet, but still fascinating.

Boring!

Ah, there he was, yes. Still, after a year and a half, sometimes, when the mood was just so.

Well, hopefully he wouldn’t be bored of this one.

Wonder what he would have said about the way I collected the intel. Probably would have logicked out the guard patterns from the way they walk and their using or not using the cellar from their power bills.

Don’t be an idiot, John. It’s not the power bills, it’s the echo on the cellar stairs.

Ah. I stand corrected.

He grinned like a loon. It was time to move.

Average Man – CH 04

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The airplane was almost empty, barring a huge cooler case and a pleasantly familiar rotund figure of Mike Stamford in a seat by the table. He had a newspaper spread on the table and a pencil twirling in his fingers, ready for the crossword just in front of him.

“Come on, John” he patted a place beside him. “Let’s get started on some stuff before they can take off, hm?”

“How did you…?”

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Average Man – CH 03

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He was trying to avoid parks, but it was hard in London to go for any distance and not find yourself in one. From the tiny bedsit he had managed to find – uncomfortably close to his first one, but more depressing – he saw one that looked reasonably abandoned by throngs of people filling the other ones.

Finally, he gave in.

At least he had a better cane this time. The previous one was much too short, but this time he got properly measured and it was much more comfortable – in the limited way that it could.

The park was quiet. It was soothing, in a way. He needed to not be around people. To not be asked, every second awake, how he was, whether he needed anything or if there was anything they could do for him.

Shitty.

Sherlock.

Fuck off.

These were the simple answers. He didn’t have any resources left to provide bigger, more complex, more informative ones. At least when he met Mycroft – from time to time, simply because Mr Government felt the need to check on him on irregular basis, usually meeting him somewhere in public – he didn’t have to say anything. Mycroft looked about as shitty as John felt, and he did have to go to work everyday. After all, if he didn’t, what kind of world would they have woken up in the day after?

Not that John cared, not in particular. But Mycroft had something that made him pull through, forced him to carry on. John didn’t, at least not something that would make him connect to other people. After… he shied away from from that thought. He didn’t like to define that day in any details. It was That Day. After That Day he found himself unable to go to work. Or to eat, or to even get up. He found himself sleeping three days straight – after which his phone was full of messages, and one of them informed him of his breach of contract and that the next salary would be the last one. He couldn’t care.

When Mrs Hudson came to wrestle him from his bed after these three days, he understood in sudden flash of enlightenment that the simple reason he had been unable to move himself out of his bedroom was that the rest of the flat was still full of Sherlock. He couldn’t bear to look at the living room. He had to pass through it every time he walked to the bathroom though, which made it tough to take a shower. He managed to cross it only when absolutely pressed – and in darkness, if he could hold that long.

Looking around the kitchen – the forgotten experiments, the abandoned collection of weirdness – he found his left hand shaking at the thought of making tea. He couldn’t even reach up to the cupboard where he had stored the boxes himself.

The Army pension was still there, trickling into his account. He had savings – quite a lot, actually, from the bigger checks he and Sherlock had collected over the years. Still, he would have to be reasonable. Rent a flat at the rate he could sustainably pay with his basic income and try not to use the savings until there was an emergency.

He moved out in a month, after two more bouts of drinking combined with panic attacks which he had triggered by forcing himself to sit in the living room and look at Sherlock’s chair. After he had almost shot the innocent piece of furniture, he gave up. He packed everything he reasonably could find – some of his clothes had gone missing, probably appropriated by Sherlock for some fantastic reason, and some of his things were in places he didn’t dare to look at, so he just left them there. Books from the shelves… He could go back for them later.

Mrs Hudson was honestly surprised and obviously disappointed, but she hugged him and asked for his new address “should anyone come asking for your help, dear boy”. He provided it, not expecting much. And that was exactly what had happened. Day after day, nothing was happening at an alarming rate.

He watched his small telly, tracking the drama of Greg Lestrade unfold – and then, suddenly, crash into a halt when “new evidence” came into light. He didn’t smile with satisfaction, but he knew very well who had arms that long and touch that deft. Mycroft managed to grow a pair apparently and was clearing his little brother’s name like crazy, which, coincidentally, helped also the DI.

John spent his days documenting their old cases from memory, enriching them with the scant documentation he had taken from Baker Street. He never published them on the blog, but sent the content to one of Mycroft’s secure-ish e-mail accounts. He felt vindicated – just a bit – every time another wave of “Sherlock true facts” hit the news and it was all over the telly. Usually he could see the slant, or the detail, or at least an appropriate background picture. He knew Mycroft was reading the e-mails – the short “Thank you, John” showing up in his e-mail few days after each file was sent. And then he saw the same seeds blooming slowly in the information presented by the media. Witnesses came forward – ones he had dragged up from the bottom of his memory. Facts, photos, recordings and medical reports were located. Missing statements were found. GPS locator log was published – for certain days, when crimes he had been accused of were committed, Sherlock was proved to be in a completely different place. People that had contributed to Sherlock’s downfall in the public eyes had disappeared suddenly, and some of them were found to have never really existed before.

From the bedsit, John felt he could contribute. He found out that the soothing, bland surroundings made his brain work better, find the memories faster. He played out the events – the cases, the interviews – on the pastel screen of the wall opposite his bed, recalling faces, names, places and simple facts, like weather. He typed them raw, first, then compared to the case descriptions from his blog and went over them again, matching the timelines and locations. If this was even a fraction of what Sherlock’s mind palace worked like, he could understand why the man was so focused on it. It was a perfect recall tool, and he was moderately glad to be able to use it so.

Until the night came and the same pastel colours made him wake up screaming, thinking the last three years had been all false, that he had dreamed about it all, that he had been just recently discharged and he had nothing to look forward to. There were no mad detectives coming to pull him out of his depression, no fascinating men to listen to as they built the most fantastic logical chains in the world, no devoted companions who would… He choked on the thought, each time the same.

Would it have been better to never have met him? To never know what it was like to finally soar above the average, above the grey and pastel? To never leave the safe and sane confines of his well-ordered and terribly dull life?

Would he had been better off, had he never met Sherlock and never known how it feels to be drunk on someone else’s brilliance?

He usually lay awake for the rest of the night, trying not to let his eyes sting with the tears this thought brought into his eyes.

No. It wouldn’t have been better. I wouldn’t have been better off. I had him for the scant time that I was given. I had someone special, I saw him in a different way than anyone around us. I knew him, and he knew me. If I never met him, I wouldn’t be here at all.

After one of such nights he found himself unable to walk without a cane. His old one long gone, he set out on a mission to find a cane to end all canes. He dug into his savings and found the perfect one, custom-fitted to his height and hand. It wasn’t as good as walking unaided, but at least the limp stopped being so obvious. And he knew he was not going to get any better. His sleeping habits were certainly not helping.

Nights were bad. Lying in bad was bad. Even falling asleep in his chair was bad. He wasn’t sure what he could do, but sleeping became an elusive thing to be chased and at the same time, feared. He never knew how long he would have gone like that – too little sleep, too much nerves, too little food, too much coffee.

He was holding a coffee cup when it happened.

He was sitting on a bench, trying to relax in the trace amount of sun that filtered through the clouds, holding a cup of not-so-terrible coffee and thinking about the last two cases he had planned to write for Mycroft.

The war had been almost won. There were people coming forward volunteering information. There was the homeless network finding new witnesses that would have never approached the likes of Mycroft otherwise. There were even a few stupider criminals who had been outraged by the idea that they were pictured as being Sherlock’s puppets. The smarter ones kept their cool, counting on the possibility of retrial, but still a few of the minor crooks had managed to mouth off to their guards, dismayed at being treated as less than self-sufficient.

Idiots.

People are idiots, John.

Stop it.

Small battle after battle, spilling onto the streets. At least his current neighbourhood escaped being tagged – maybe the members of Sherlock’s network had something to do with that, as the only place he saw that had a large “I fight John Watson’s War” was the windowless wall opposite the grocery store he visited twice a week. It was comforting, in a weird, otherworldly way. He had never meant to start it – “the War” – but the journalists were too insistent and too stubborn, and he was too hurt to consider his words carefully. He had flung his “best man I’ve ever known” and “misunderstood genius” and, sometimes, “man who saved so many lives, including mine” in the faces of these vultures. They had hounded him whenever he emerged, at least for the first months. It gave him something to focus on, but at the same time, forced him to remember . He found his own face staring at him from the tabloids, his words misquoted in myriad of ways, his behaviour analysed by TV psychologists, his aggression pointed out as possible symptom of something more dangerous. Mycroft – through Anthea – had reported one day that he had managed to stop an industrious young lady from digging into John’s military records. He only nodded in thanks, but the next case he described was much more detailed, with various valid elements added over the three days he kept awake as he furiously kept away from the thought of someone looking at his past.

It became one of the key examples Mycroft put it to use when, at the same time, MI6 managed to pull the fake Richard Brook identity into the daylight, stripping the layers of lies that Moriarty wrapped himself in.

There were just two cases left. Minor ones, a two and a three in the scale of Sherlock’s nicotine patches, but still, might have proved useful for Mycroft, in case additional strengthening of the walls was needed.

John didn’t particularly like Mycroft. He was an annoying, overbearing, stiff git.

John, however, liked working with Mycroft and appreciated the man, on a professional level. The Ice Man was scrupulous. Perfectly punctual. He never discarded even the tiniest information as unimportant. Used John’s input to the best outcome.

And now, only two cases left. So, a walk in the park. Far from anything that could trigger him. He had made a mistake of visiting Bart’s once. It hadn’t ended prettily. Park, far away from the city centre, was good. Soothing.

He sipped his coffee. It wasn’t bad. It wasn’t very good either, but it wasn’t bad. Just average.

“Captain?”

The man in front of him was tall, at least as tall as Sherlock.

Funny how things defaulted to him. People were stupider than him, shorter than him, slower than him.

“Captain? Captain Watson?”

He looked up and grabbed for his cane.

“Bloody hell, Cap… how are you?”

“Murray?” he asked faintly. “What are you doing here? I thought you were…” ‘somewhere, getting shot at’ “still deployed?”

“No, Cap. Finished another tour, my box of medals still as empty as it was, so I told myself, why bother. We got together with Rudy, Gianni and Elena and decided we’re going to do better back home. And now, look at you, you are just what we needed.”

“Murray, what the fuck are you talking about?”

“We need an actual doctor, Cap. And you are the best, so…”

“Murray, either you start making sense, of I’ll shoot you.”

“First you’d have to go and fetch your weapon, sir, with all due respect.”

John felt a small smile tugging at his mouth as he shrugged slightly and let his jacket fall just a bit open.

“Wow” his former second in command whistled. “Professional. You have papers for that thing?”

“Good enough to allow me to walk in public like this.”

One thing John had asked Mycroft for, and the Ice Man provided, after only a token resistance.

The shoulder holster modelled to his frame and specific needs was a bonus, Anthea said. To make sure he can actually use it as intended, and not shoot off his own ass, which was sure to happen should he keep sticking the stupid thing in the back of his trousers.

“Now, Murray. What is this all about?”

The taller man sat next to him on the bench and leaned back.

“We’re putting together a small team of, well, specialists. We have a great place – and judging by the way you’re sitting here, all alone, I’m guessing you live in one of these” he nodded towards the flat complexes on the other side of the street. “We did, too. Three weeks and I was ready to shoot the walls just to make sure there was something breaking the beige.”

“It’s just been a few months. I used to live… somewhere else, but I had to move.”

“We read the papers, Cap. We’ve kind of guessed what you went through. We even through of contacting you earlier, but Elena hit me for suggesting it and said it was not done. She was always the sensitive one, that gal.”

Elena was six feet five and had arms as thick as John’s calves. And she always joked she should have became an anaesthesiology nurse, so that the department could make savings on the medicine used – she could hit a man hard enough to knock him out and measure it so that he didn’t sustain any lasting damage.

“So, what do you need from me?”

“First, Cap, I need you to take your things from whatever pastel hellhole you’re now bunking in and come with me. The House has just one opening for a new flatmate now, and I feel you will fit right in. Then I need you to pick yourself up and come with us to the Vet centre. We are all helping as volunteers now, and there are people coming everyday who could have used some of Doc Watson’s tough love.”

“And?”

“And then there will be jobs. Consulting stuff. Maybe some action from time to time.”

“Foreign or domestic?”

“Well, depends on the pay. But” Murray smirked and nodded at the buildings around him “I can assure you we’ll be having much more fun than you’re having here now.”

“Bill” he bit his lip. “I don’t have much to contribute. Just my pension. I can’t really work right now. My tremor” he brought his left hand up.

It was steady.

“Bloody hell” he rubbed his face. “Again.”

“We have one more thing, Cap.”

“Yes?” he mumbled.

“We have a shrink. But, no, listen” he saw John’s head fly up. “He’s good. It’s a vet. He did his major in psychiatry, specifically war-related trauma. A Scottish guy, perfectly reasonable. No pamby-namby group therapy, holding hands, talking through it and making sure we listen to soothing music or go outside or bare our souls. He talks, he listens, or he sits with you if you can’t speak. Rudy, you remember what he did? When he jumped at every sound? Well, Thompson found out that it’s not an actual PTSD – it is, well, but Rudy simply has hearing oversensitivity. Everyone thought it’s him overreacting to shots, but it’s purely physiological. The guy has ears like a bat, so it’s obvious every louder noise affects him worse than others.”

“Rudy always heard the choppers coming earlier than everyone.”

“Like that Radar guy.”

“Like the Radar guy, exactly.”

“So. The part that comes with joining our little crew is that Thompson comes twice a week and has a session with everyone who needs it. There is a group hour if anyone wants to – some actually make use of it, if they have common problems, like Elena and Claire, after that shootout in the village, and some just pop in if they are needed. Especially if someone is suffering from partial memory loss and someone else can contribute. And all of us are, right?”

John snorted. He had white periods in his memory, just like the others.

“So. Captain Watson. What do you think?”

“Who is the boss of the outfit?”

“There is no boss, as such. We go by our rank, we take jobs that fit, and there is a democratic vote on jobs that could potentially affect us all. If you join, you’d be the ranking officer, but all it gets you is the priority in the queue to the coffee machine. Everyone shares the chores and the shopping fund, girls do the shopping because they just can’t stand us buying them the cheapest tampons, we do the cleaning, the throwing out and everyone cooks, up to their skill level. Which means Elena is allowed to pour milk into cereal, and only her own.”

John sighed and sipped his coffee.

“Sounds tempting. But, why me ?”

“You are here. You look like you’re missing something to do. We trust you, Captain. We need a doctor. These poor guys in the Vet centre need you, too. And you are a celebrity.”

“I see. And what are you going to use my wonderful status for?”

One corner of Murray’s mouth moved slightly up.

“Publicity. If people know we have you on the team, it will look better. You won’t even have to join in on the action – if someone needs medical perspective or consult, they can come to us. And, putting it brutally, we need an actual doctor on the team. And you still have an active civilian licence, right? You can write prescriptions and be our GP and everything?”

John nodded slowly.

“Then you’d get paid from the House budget for that, too. Blokes have their problems, girls have theirs, but in general, we are all just a bit broken or a bit poorly put together. In exchange for volunteering at the vet centre as nurses and aides we get free physiotherapy and we can use the facilities, including the gym. You could probably show your shoulder to the nice boys there and they could do something about loosening up these muscles.”

“That would be nice” John said with a slight smile. “What would I be doing? Apart from writing tons of prescriptions for routine ailments?”

“There are some guys – and gals, and others – who got medicines from their doctors out in the field, but now have trouble fitting into normal system. Or the GPs don’t want to continue the same therapy. Or they’d have to go to a hospital to get more and they are afraid to. They trust army doctors. If you could take a few of them every day, review their treatment, write the meds for whoever likely needs just a repeat and talk to the ones who need more – hospital or another specialist – that would be a huge thing. Rudy managed to convince some poor guy with diabetes to go to a civilian GP with him to get a paper for diabetologist, and it saved his life, I’m sure. Sometimes we drive with them to the specialists and help them with the civilian procedures, or sign them in to the hospitals and visit them there. They… We, all of us, tend to shut down and stop caring for ourselves when the structured army care disappears. Some forgot how to do shopping, some can’t cope with using ATM. And some had never learnt how to make a doctor’s appointment. We teach them by going with. Some who had already been re-trained and found themselves doing better outside are becoming mentors and supervisors for new ones.”

“So, basically, you’re preparing them for the reintegration into the wilderness” John smiled, draining his cup. “I’m in. And I’ll take you up on the appointment with your lovely-sounding shrink. Who knows, maybe he’ll be the one to crack this” he patted his skull.

“We’d rather have this kept whole and uncracked, Cap. But I’m sure he will see it as a personal challenge to unscramble the contents. So, when can you move?”

“You up to carrying some boxes?”

“Why not.”

“And I’m assuming that since you seem to have absolutely no business in this part of town at all, you’ve come here specifically to look for me, so you have a car?”

“Not a moving van…”

“A sedan will be enough. Three boxes of files, one laptop and two bags of clothes. I can carry the bags, but the boxes require two hands.”

“Shall we, then? I parked on the corner, so I’d have to move closer to your door, wherever it is.”

John smiled thinly and shook his head.

“Sure. Why not. But I am still working on one thing right now, so I won’t be able to pull my weight immediately.”

“Does it pay?”

“Not in money” John stood up and leaned on his cane. “But it’s a case… a case of honour, in a manner of speaking.”

Murray fell in step beside him.

“Is this about that fellow you used to work with? I saw stuff on the telly, once we came back.”

“It used to be worse. They were slandering him just before he…” John sucked in some air. “His brother is working on having his good name restored. And I’m helping him, remotely. A bit of idee fixe, but I can’t just let go. I have two more reports to write and it will be done. Then I can join you and see if that physio will get my left hand back into working order.”

Murray smiled and led them to a large car he had parked on the corner.

“Lead on, Captain. And I can tell you, you’re going to like it with us.”

 

#

 

John had to admit Murray had been right. Being useful in the vet centre was not as exciting as his life with Sherlock, but it was wearing, fulfilling and challenging. Once the last communication to Mycroft was sent and he had began his sessions with Donald Thompson he felt as if he had turned a new leaf. Opened a new book, even. He had sat down on one session with all the inhabitants of the House in order to inform them – in general terms – of his most likely problems, expectations and trigger points. They shared theirs in turn, which Murray had explained to be the protocol for everyone. They were taking no chances, so no blue lights were allowed in the house, no raw red meat, no floral scents and, in deference to John’s wishes, no violin music. Nobody was to approach others from behind or to touch them without being acknowledged, which was also perfectly fine with John. Each trigger was explained – haltingly or openly, but each was given at least a token background, to ensure better understanding of the point.

When he described, in slightly broken voice, his issue with violin music, Donald had nodded and simply written a note, but the others patted John’s shoulders in compassion. The line was added to the general list of rules pasted on the interior of the kitchen door, where everyone could have a look at it when taking the coffee.

“A cheat sheet” Murray explained. “It will help you, too. It also helps when making shopping lists, we check if someone hadn’t added one of the risky products by accident.”

“This… sounds like a specialised safehouse” John sighed. “Like nothing bad can happen to us as long as we’re inside.”

“And following the rules. Remember, Cap, rules are important for Army people. We don’t have orders and regulations now, but we have out own internal rule book. Which melts down to ‘don’t harm and don’t let others come to harm by overlooking something’, the rest is just footnotes, to make sure we remember what is what.”

 

#

 

John’s room was bare and bright. Eastern window made for early morning awakenings, which suited him perfectly. He unpacked the bag and placed the file boxes on empty shelves, then sat in the desk chair and surveyed his new domain. It was different. Different from the bedsits, much cleaner and more open. Different from 221B, much… much less Sherlock.

He had almost no personal effects to put around the room, but that would have to wait.

“It looks empty” Bill leaned on his door. “That’s all you have?”

“Some of my stuff is still in the old flat, but I don’t think I’ll ever be able to collect it” he brushed his slightly grown out hair away from his face.

“Do you need help?”

He chewed on it for a moment.

“It’s all mixed up with my old partner’s things” he explained finally. “I couldn’t…”

“But I know perfectly well you sign all your books, so these will be easy to pick” Bill raised his eyebrows. “If you can’t just do it, Elena and me could do the actual packing and you come with to make sure we’re let in.”

John nodded slowly.

“That would work. And yes, I still sign my stuff. I could do with some help collecting my textbooks and documents…”

 

#

 

221B was almost as he had left it. Mrs Hudson assured him in teary voice that Mycroft had been paying the rent and asking her to keep the flat as it was, as he didn’t have heart to deal with Sherlock’s things yet.

“And you hadn’t been by, John, I was worried. You can’t just do things like this, dropping off the face of earth!” she said with reproach.

“I’m sorry, Mrs Hudson. I came by to collect the rest of my things and to give you my new forwarding address. In case anyone comes with… the old business, send them there, too. And if someone from Sherlock’s network needs anything, please give them my number. I don’t want them going without, if I can help.”

“Billy comes by from time to time, and I let him do some chores. He sleeps in C when it’s colder, and he’s actually kept is cleaner than it had ever been.”

He nodded, sipping his tea.

“Let me know if anyone comes asking, too. In case they don’t come to me later, just to make sure I know there is someone needing help.”

“Of course, John, of course. But… will you be alright? Who are your friends?”

Elena and Bill were upstairs, carefully sorting out the living room and he was actively not thinking about Sherlock’s things being picked up and touched. At least these two knew what the loss of Sherlock had meant to him – as much as he could put it into words – and could be trusted to treat the contents of 221B with due respect.

“My old medical team” he explained, combing his hair back with his fingers. “I’m moving in with them into a shared house, in the suburbs. They offered to help me pick my things as I can’t really…” he tapped his cane against his leg.
“Ah, poor boy. Did you get hurt again?”

“No, it’s just…” he sighed. “Just the old thing. Came back. I suppose running all day was keeping it quiet and it doesn’t like me sitting too much.”

“Well, I do hope you find a nice place for yourself, John. And, maybe, you know. At some point you could consider…”

He frowned, looking at her in suspicion.

“I mean, I know you two were… Doing a lot together. But, maybe, at some point, you will decide to move on. Nobody will hold it against you, darling. You can make some nice boy very happy.”

“Mrs Hudson…” he put away his cup. “I… I can’t. I couldn’t. Sherlock and I, we were…”

“I know, you always said you weren’t a couple. But don’t try to trick me, young man. I know these things.”

“Well, yes, in a manner of speaking, but I couldn’t really, anyway. I’m not a good relationship person. I don’t do relationships.”

“Well, with Sherlock…”

“And we both know how it ended” he said bitterly. “I feel responsible for this, I missed the signs, I allowed myself to be distracted. I can’t afford to lose another person.”

“I absolutely understand that you feel like this right now, John. But you can’t deny yourself human contact just because you’re afraid you’ll lose them. Not everyone is Sherlock Holmes.”

John sighed and nodded. This was exactly the point. Not everyone was Sherlock Holmes. Or, rather, right then, nobody was Sherlock Holmes, at all.

Bill came stomping down the steps.

“We’ve picked all the books that had your name on them, Cap” he said. “And I’ve looked through the main room for clothes your size, just in case. Elena is upstairs, still packing the wardrobe. Good afternoon, ma’am” he nodded to Mrs Hudson and went to the car, carrying two hefty boxes.

“I will go up” he said after a moment of silence. “I think it’s time I said goodbye properly.”

 

#

 

The flat was covered with sheets now – probably Mycroft’s doing – and there was a heap of boxes where Bill had packed his medical journals and references. A few smaller books were waiting on the table for John to check them. His chair was covered, too, but he dragged the sheet off and sat in it, for the memories’ sake.

He could picture everything where it was, under the cover of white. The books, the lab equipment, the power tools, the skull and the pillows on the sofa. He could picture the long, lithe body lain prone on it, inky curls around his head like a demented dark halo, lips drawn in half-smile, fingers steepled together.

It didn’t hurt this time. He felt prickling in the corners of his eyes and the tears fell, but it didn’t hurt. It was just so damn sad. Such a waste of human potential. Such a terrible, terrible waste of mind and heart and soul, ground into dust by public opinion and a consulting criminal.

Such a waste, but, Lord, what a glory before. What a place to have been, what a time to have lived in, to share a bit of his limelight, to breathe in the greatness. It was pure adrenalin and testosterone and endorphines. He knew perfectly well he would never have a chance for someone like that to find him again. There was only one Sherlock Holmes and he had left John behind.

Elena was coming down the stairs, dragging two large duffles and carrying a gym bag.

“Anything else, Cap? Bathroom? Any meds you need to pick up? First aid kit, stuff like this?”

He steeled himself and nodded. He needed his leather case, but until now he couldn’t force himself to fetch it.

“I’ll take it. And my things from the bathroom. Thank you, Sergeant.”

They both smiled.

“My pleasure, Cap. I emptied all your drawers and shelves, pretty randomly, so you’ll have some sorting to do, I suppose. I’ll bring down the garment bags with your uniforms in the next go.”

The flat was silent for a moment, so he looked around and found the violin case. Undoing two clasps he inhaled the faint smell of rosin and smiled. It wasn’t a normal scent to go mushy about, but it was a non-sad smell so he could finally say his piece without his throat constricting.

“I wish we could have had more, Sherlock” he whispered. “I with I could have convinced you to stay and to keep this up. To live for us, even if public opinion was against you. I don’t give a fuck for the public opinion. I don’t care. I never did. If they called us frauds and fakes we could have moved into the country and found ourselves some nice, cosy village murder from time to time. I’d have bought you the damned hives, even. I could have a practice, with old ladies coming to talk about their long-dead husbands and spilling the most crucial secrets of the neighbourhood as asides and then we would go and investigate cold cases of long-forgotten village outsiders. Nobody would care if we were fake or true if we helped people. We would have had so much to learn. I wish I could have made you stay and see that I needed you and I never doubted you. You were true and that is what mattered to me.”

The violin never replied, so he carefully plucked at the strings, making them tremble quietly.

“I wish you could have seen yourself with my eyes, Sherlock.”

The clasps again closed and the sheet replaced, he walked to the mantle and lifted the cover off the skull. The skull stared at him in reproach.

“You too?” he sighed. “Well, anyway. Here, keep an eye on it. Or at least a socket. Mycroft will… He will find it one day.”

A small cube of black wood joined the skull and the slipper. He couldn’t imagine a better place for it.

Average Man – CH 02

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The House was silent and empty, which wasn’t the natural state of a place where seven people of varying genders, characters and needs shared a common space. Still, the only person John met between the entrance and his own room was Bill, who was just exiting the kitchen, garbage bag in hand. The taller man raised his free hand in greeting, but a cheery “Hello” died on his lips as he froze mid-movement.

“Cap… Your cane?”

“Don’t need the ruddy cane anymore, Murr. I…” he breathed deeply. “I’m fine now. I will be working abroad for the next few days – maybe up to a month, really – so please, collect all my mail and look for anything that looks like bills. Pay them from the house account, if you could, I will top it up when I’m back.”

Bill’s body tensed immediately.

“Ah… Travelling?”

“On the Crown’s dime, yes. I’ll need your input on that, too. Rudy in?”

“He should be back in a moment, just popped out to fetch some cigarettes.”

“I’ll pack and talk then. Come on, the garbage will wait, and I need to be in the car in twenty.”

The moment he opened his wardrobe, he faltered.

“What the hell am I supposed to take?” he asked into the empty room.

“Do you have any plans? Any idea at all?”

He shrugged and picked a bunch of t-shirts.

“I have to retrieve two British operatives. Seems all the locally stationed military is already well-known to the local populace, so they can’t even go near the place where the agents are kept. And one person who could have gone there had broken his leg. Now they don’t have anyone at the same time skilled, unknown to locals and yet with usable contacts in the area.”

Bill snorted.

“Sounds like a little secret clusterfuck.”

“Exactly. The captives kept in one of the houses near the waterfront, and by the scarce surveillance they managed to get it down to two blocks, more or less. Locals aren’t happy with some damned Brits bossing them around, and I’m kind of completely not surprised.”

“Who could be? So what, city? Small town?”

John grimaced.

“Dobrota.”

Bill whistled quietly.

“You are going back there? Geez, Cap. OK. Waterfront, check. Lots of old buildings, check. Local crime syndicate – more than one. Well, sand camo won’t work. Who captured them? Local government, local crime, international?”

“Supposedly local crimelord with aspirations. Who knows what kind of connections they have. I will see the intel on the plane.”

He pulled out one of his infamous jumpers.

“You’re taking this?”

John shrugged.

“Who knows. May be chilly. Also, John Watson, the bumbling tourist…”

“Definitely. Oh, take the jacket, too” Bill handed him the brown checkered tweed from the hanger. “And the bow tie. And the shirt!”

“Hm, I should have the brown courdroys somewhere, too. I remember I’ve patched them with suede, that will make them match the tweed.”

His companion snorted.

“Brown shoes then, too. The scuffed ones.”

“We shouldn’t be having fun with this one. A man’s life depends on it.”

“That only means you have to prepare accordingly, and not that you have to be dead serious about it!”

The front door opened and closed and Bill was downstairs in a second.

“Rudy, Cap needs your input…” John lost the track of their conversation as he reached under the bed for the box holding his brown brogues.

He very carefully moved another box, a box he didn’t wish to open or even think too deeply about, and fetched the needed one. Yep, here they were… now socks, appropriate… argyle, brown and wine, or black and blue? Both, just in case.

A shaving kit, a set of fatigues, an additional pair of combat trousers and some tougher boots completed the needed luggage.

“Cap? You need contacts in Boka?” Rudy seemed unnerved. “You are going back there?”

“Very nice vacation spot, they say” John shrugged. “Picturesque and all that rot. Blue sea, white wharfs, blah, blah. What do you have for me?”

“There is this guy, local, who can do magical tricks with electronics. He always kept current list of all CCTV cameras, be it government or private. Used to maintain a “dark map” of the coastal towns.”

“Useful, I suppose. Anything else?”

“Try to avoid the local specialty, Cap.”

John zipped the duffle and cocked an eyebrow at the lanky redhead.

“He means a knifed kidney, Cap. Served to all suspiciously-looking foreigners that annoy someone” Bill clapped his hand on his arm. “Here, take this. Passcode is my service number, so exercise your memory and you’ll have all the data you need. Contacts, passphrases, local gun dealers, whatever you need. We’ll send a message or two to the ones who do communicate electronically, but most of them require a face to face meeting.”

“Also, local cash” Rudy dumped a fat folder next to the duffel. “I expect you to replenish it with similar content before you get back home – properly worn-out middle value notes, adequate for bribes, shopping and paying street kids for their services.”

“I will try, definitely. Ta, boys. I think I have everything.”

“Your uniform?”

John rolled his eyes just slightly.

“I have my beret and my fatigues. Quite sure they won’t have a parade for me there.”

“Cap, really.”

“Really. In, do the job, be a doctor for a few weeks, out. Hopefully with the captives, of course.”

“Do you know who they are at least?”

He stuffed the beret in the side pocket of the duffel and shrugged on his leather jacket.

“I know the woman. No idea who the guy is. Holmes didn’t give me either name, but he dropped a pretty heavy hint for her identity, so whoever the bloke is, he is probably rather well connected. Well, involvement of ‘Mr Government’ already says he is kind of important, but the most they told me is that I will be easily able to recognise him by the fact that he is being extensively tortured. Her, too, so I feel a pressure to hurry.”

“Ah, nothing better than being a proper British gentleman. Now, Cap, I hope you are not letting your heart rule your head, really. Where do you know that woman from?”

“My… previous career. She was a client, of sorts. At some point.”

“How well do you know her?”

Shouldering the duffel and grabbing his laptop bag allowed John to smother a chortle.

“As well as I could without actually knowing her in the most explicit sense. I could, if pressed, identify her body if someone had decapitated her.”

Bill grimaced with a tiny twitch.

“Really, Cap. Such nice things you say. What the hell were you doing with that detective?”

“Investigating a domina, in this specific case. Be good, boys. Make sure the House is still standing when I’m back. Ah, and if anyone asks, I was called away by my sister. That is, unless it’s my sister asking, then tell her I’m on vacation in Norway and trolls ate my mobile.”

“Will do, John. Good luck.”

Bill enveloped his much shorter commander in a tight hug.

“Boys. Good luck was what I had in the park that day. Everything from that point is sweat and tears and hard work. I used up my good luck quota on that meeting, so I can’t count on it helping me anymore.”

“I say we were just as lucky as you on that day.”

Rudy handed John the holster with his gun, which the diminutive Captain – Major – wrapped securely around his hips.

“Tell the rest where I’m going. In case any of them comes up with something helpful, let me know on my second mobile, using the rolling cypher. I’ll call you on a secure line from the base for details.”

He trotted down the small lane to the waiting, quietly purring, black car. He waited calmly for the door to be opened and peeked inside.

“Yes, Major Watson. You can get in safely.”

“Well, if you say so, Anthea.”

“I can only guarantee that this car will get you to the airport and not to another warehouse” she smirked at him, but as he dumped the bag between them and fluidly joined her on the wide seat, her eyebrows rose slightly. “You are prepared. Well, here’s the file Mr Holmes asked me to hand you. CCTV shots are there, too, and a memory stick with all the recordings we managed to collect” the distaste in her voice was rather saying. “It’s not as much as we would have liked. I hope you can make this work, Major Watson. Oh, by the way” she reached into her tiny purse and handed him a small, wine-red box. “No official decoration ceremony for you, I’m afraid, but I suppose you do know what to do with these. I do hope you have at least one uniform packed. You will need it on base.”

“I hope I won’t be spending a lot of time on the base, actually. Considering the way the situation was described, I’d much rather get started as soon as possible. I’ll need a reasonably civilian car to move around there, and a room in one of the hostels outside of the direct area, to make me a believable tourist. May be a nice cosy B&B, something just for a middle-aged bachelor with no particular requirements other than convenient access to a parking area. I’ll be making a research on my ancestors. You see, my grandmother, Aneza, was apparently from the area, as she always told us – in broken English – how she remembered the Boka from her childhood…” he smirked. “I will be walking around, trying to match the palazzos from her stories to what I’m seeing.”

She actually blinked.

“We’ve managed to make a provisional estimate which group it could be, based on the location of the potential houses, the interior which was visible in the video of Miss Adler and the way the man torturing her spoke.”

“Is this recording on the stick, too?” he asked tensely.

“Yes, in folder marked appropriately. I understand you know Miss Adler personally, so I didn’t want you to…”

“In a manner of speaking, yes. I’d like to hear the man speaking, actually. And it could potentially help me make a general judgement as to her state, too. There is only that one recording?”

“Yes. One of them apparently is less than proficient in usage of internet and instead of copying it somewhere inside, as he intended, had managed to synchronise it to his cloud account and left it there long enough for one of our spiders to collect it and parse the image and sound for key features. Face of The Woman is on our hot list.”

“I’m sure it is. Very well, I’ll check it on the plane then. Is there anything you can tell me that is not in the file, but could affect the way I should approach the situation?”

She looked at her Blackberry for a moment.

“Mr Holmes wishes you success. He really hopes you can pull this one off, Major. Oh. The current commanding officer of the local unit is someone you will definitely recognise.”

He opened the file and looked at the top photo showing a long, black-wrapped figure of a man being dragged by two others from a car.

“Hm?”

“In times of crisis, people get rehabilitated” she hinted with a tiny smile. “Especially people with experience in the local situation.”

He frowned at the next photo.

“Yeah, definitely her. Dear Lord…” he cringed. “Whoa. This is what, four days old?”

“Yes, Mr Holmes flew the very moment we got this, but the freeze…”

“Yes, yes. We will need medical attention for her, definitely. Antibiotics, full range, who knows… Ouch. Do we have any photos of the guy?”

“No, everything we have on him is what was caught by the city cameras. Her photos are simply stills from the video clip. We don’t have even confirmation that they are actually doing what they told her they are, but we have to assume they are. Words ‘we will skin your loverboy just to make our boss happy’ and ‘we’ll see how long he lasts now that he’s hooked on Blast’ were used. Blast being…”

“Their newest product. I see. So they are torturing her just for the fun of recording that and, as we infer from what they tell her, are showing this to him, just for the fun of torturing him… for fun.”

“That would be the situation as we see it. There is no chatter coming about any group in that area, no hostage exchange expected, no movement of forces, no particular change of balance. They are not preparing any action that could be based on information gained from an MI6 operative. They are just keeping him for the sole purpose of killing him slowly. As of today morning we are still nearly sure they are both alive, as there was no report of a body dump in the direct neighbourhood.”

“Heartening” he murmured. “Well, Irene, I hope this time it will be less dramatic than the last one.”

Anthea frowned at the glossy photo of Irene Adler’s bruised face he held up.

“Here we are. The plane is waiting. You should be landing in three hours in the US base just on the Austrian border and then you’ll be transported by a heli to the British one closest to Kotor. From there you can proceed with your mission at your discretion. As per the documents in this folder” she handed him another plastic envelope “you are authorised to draw from an allocated MI6 budget for any reasonable reason. In case of unreasonable, please do keep the receipts.”

“And if unreasonable doesn’t have an accountant?”

“Make sure you take the printout from the ATM then” she smiled thinly. “The base personnel is at your disposal, also in reasonable timeframe. Again, unreasonable will have to be coordinated with the local c.o. I wish you… achieving your aims.”

He stepped out and pulled his bag up.

“John?” she said finally, making him turn sharply back and look at her in surprise. “Good luck. And try not to get killed. Mycroft…”

“I know. I will. Adrianna.”

She rolled her eyes.

“Be careful. This mission is crap, you know.”

“That was obvious from the moment I saw Mycroft in that cast. Apparently even the elements are against us.”

“Major Watson?” a man tapped his shoulder. “Will you come aboard, sir?”

“Thank you, yes. Adrianna? Tell Mycroft to make sure Irene is treated properly when she comes back. I won’t cart her home just to see her rot in prison. And I will know if he lies. Even by e-mail.”

“I will make sure he knows it.”

Average Man – CH 01

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The bench wasn’t either comfortable or uncomfortable. Perfectly average. The day was neither sunny nor very cloudy. The traffic was neither light, nor heavy. Everything was just in the middle, just normal, just… average.
He was average. Maybe less than so in height, maybe more than so in charm – if he remembered to apply it. His face was that specific kind of typical, vaguely handsome, slightly worn that never attracted particular attention. His clothes were neither shabby nor overly chic, and the only distinguishing feature of them was the general soldierly feeling one may have when looking at a man dressed in blacks and greens that don’t actually flatter his complexion, yet suit him perfectly nevertheless.
The heavy cane held between his knees was well-worn and the steel cap that probably clicked with his every step was showing the signs of scuffing. Everything was slightly faded – his clothes, his cane, even his eyes. Yet, when the clouds temporarily gave way to the sun, there were tiny points of glinting brightness dancing on his chest, and as he turned his face to the warmth, pulling the knit cap away, his hair shone of silver and gold.
Even with his eyes closed, he noticed a change in the pattern of traffic on the street in front of him, so he decided to open them just at the right moment to see a black car sliding to a stop in front of him. A door closest to him opened invitingly.
He smiled.
“I have grown out of this habit” he said with voice slightly hoarse with disuse.
“I’m afraid I can’t get out all that easily, Captain” a man’s terse tone made him raise his eyebrows. “But I will, if you wish…”
A pair of crutches on the floor drew his attention.
“No… But we will keep the door open.”
“If you prefer. However I assure you, we will all be much more comfortable if you come with me. At least I’ll be able to stretch this… inconvenience.”
Mycroft Holmes sounded rather annoyed.
John Watson got up from the bus stop bench and slowly, deliberately, made the few steps to the car. He leaned slightly to have a look inside, but, to his surprise, it seemed to be an actual real article this time.
“Hello, Captain Watson” said his… whatever Mycroft was.
“Doctor” he corrected softly. “And not much of that, either, these days.”
“Please sit and let’s go, Captain” the minor representative of the British Government said. “I think… I’m quite sure, actually, that these days, it is Captain Watson that will be needed. The country needs your services. And your presence is, ah, requested and required. If you please.”
He shrugged.
“Not sure how a pensioned veteran can help… someone with a Navy” he snorted softly. “But, why not. As long as I don’t have to march in step with some bigger boys.”
“No, Captain Watson. The task you’d be ask to perform is much less of a team effort and much more of a… solo.”
The passing buildings are replaced by greenery.
“Sounds ominous.”
“Sounds, I’m afraid, dangerous, to put it plainly. However we don’t have any choice, but to ask you to return to active duty. There is a task of particular character that will require both a resourceful operative and, most probably, a medic.”
The car turned to an entrance that John had predicted and he climbed out of the car, leaning slightly on his cane, watching as a burly man helped Mycroft Holmes up and out of the car and supported him until the crutches got correctly sorted out.
“Let’s get in, Captain Watson” the taller man said tiredly. “The sooner we get this one done, the quicker I’ll be able to go home and follow my doctor’s orders. Sleeping, eating dairy and positive outlook on life.”

#

“An operative of the Crown had got cut off from his support network and was taken prisoner by local criminal element. Of the organised kind. Unfortunately we do not have the same type of coverage on the ground as we have at home, and even local government seems to be lacking in resources. We have located the operative with the precision of two by three blocks of buildings, however due to it being a seaside town, many of the cameras mostly show general crowd. Therefore we cannot obtain any better information. Locals are also unwilling to allow foreign power to operate on their area in any manner.”
John nodded in sympathy, but placed the offered folder back on the table.
“What do you need me for?” he asked finally. “I’m not in any type of special services, or…”
Captain Watson” the man in front of him said slowly. “Please do not assume that either your ‘off the books’ training or ‘off the books’ missions were in fact off everyone’s books. There are always records. Especially for trained marksmen, hand-to-hand combat experts and scouting aces.”
John frowned at Mycroft, who, however, seemed even a bit interested, suddenly.
“You’ve been keeping secrets, Doctor Watson.”
“I haven’t been keeping anything secret that I hadn’t sworn to protect with my own life. I never got into details… because I had no idea of the security clearance of people involved.”
“Quite correct, Captain. But at this point Mr Holmes needs to share certain details and whether you can contribute, based on your experience, or not, may change the character of this discussion. We – my employer and me – would like to ensure that you do, in fact, take this case. We will offer all information we have, all network contacts and all resources, if you are amenable to taking this case. At the same time, here, in this room, you are allowed to allude, quote and describe any of the relevant facts from your previous missions. Whichever experience they may actually be related to. Mr Holmes does, after all, have a higher security clearance than either of us.”

#

“An operative. Missing, probably taken by hostile foreign powers? Stuck behind and at risk of… what?”
Mycroft sighed.
“Of death. They aren’t allowing him to recover from his wounds, so we can be rather sure the infection will set in soon, and, untended, he will die. He holds information so vital enough to the Crown that we want to send our best, Captain Watson. I would have gone myself – I actually had, but due to unforeseen weather change…”
“You slipped and broke your leg?” John summed it up shortly.
“It was a tad bit more complicated, but yes, that is a correct description. However, due to insularity of society in that region, we cannot send anyone else who could be interpreted as a government representative. They wouldn’t be able to use my network of contacts – they are not linked to me in my official capacity.”
John played with the handle of his cane for a moment.
“How can I help then? I don’t have access to your contacts, either.”
“But you do have yours, Captain.”
There was something in the tone of the man next to Mycroft that made John bristle slightly.
“I don’t even know which region we are discussing – and what forces are stationed in the area – what type of society…”
“Kotor Bay” Mycroft said with disgust. “And please, John, don’t try to convince me that you don’t know the language – languages – and that you have no idea who is stationed in that area.”
The thinner, more aristocratic man glanced at Mycroft quickly.
“I have informed you, Lord Thomas, that I know Captain Watson personally. I also know most of his military record, excluding the parts that I have intentionally ignored. I’m sorry, John” he nodded towards the soldier. “I had to know.”
“Which parts?”
“Pardon?”
“Which parts did you intentionally skip?”
Mycroft sipped his tea in silence for a few seconds.
Which parts.”
“The details of the so called off the books trainings and operations. I was going to check them one day, but… It became irrelevant.”
“You mean I became irrelevant” John said calmly. “No longer of interest to the Holmes’ family, until you need a wind-up soldier to be taken out of his quiet, well-padded box and used in some secret, underhanded operation. Very well. Let’s assume I agree. What kind of support can you offer me? From where will I be on my own? If I manage to procure the operative, how do you expect me to get out of there? What do you know about the organisation that is holding him? How do you know his current health status? Details, Mycroft. And even if I have these” John stood up and stretched a bit “you will still have to convince me that I want to do this. Not because the Crown needs me – the Crown probably doesn’t even know. After all, we are not meeting in any official location, just three blokes having a nice tea in a secluded part of the Palace. I don’t see either military officials or anyone who could be interpreted as a special ops command. This means you need my consent to run this mission, you can’t just order me to do it. Which means this is not fully, officially sanctioned unless I actually agree. So, Mycroft. Convince me. Sell this mission to me.”
“Just saying that the man is a British citizen and we have an obligation to take care of our own is not enough, I suppose.”
John pursed his lips and blinked slowly.
“I understand your military pension is not a substantial amount” the taller man said slowly. “But you are still waiting for proper processing of your… additional records. I could expedite this, if you wish. All the medals that are waiting to be officially…”
John actually smiled and Mycroft shook his head minutely.
“This is not the approach which will work with Captain Watson, I’m afraid” he half-grinned. “That much I know from experience.”
“That would mean adjustment of your rank, Co…”
“No” John said simply. “Mycroft?”
“That man will die if you don’t help, John. They are keeping him chained, tortured – using physical, chemical and psychological stimuli. At this point they are not torturing him to make him talk. They are just killing him in stages.”
“Chemical and psychological?”
Mycroft swallowed and adjusted the placement of his broken leg.
“They have induced a deep dependence on one of the drugs they distribute and now are withholding it. They are also…” he closed his eyes for a moment. “Holding an associate of our operative. And torturing her, too, in a manner that you will be able to discern as soon as you guess who that woman is.”
John turned to look out of the window and stood there, silently.
“Dear God” he said finally. “Poor sod. And poor her. I’m assuming their methods have everything to do with her… profession.”
“Indeed.”
“And they hooked your guy on their local product, which is probably either some very high-quality designer shit or, conversely, street crap cut with baking powder, talcum and pipe cleaner?”
“Unfortunately, the second one. And it’s not pipe cleaner, but close enough. The toxicity is high, but so is also… the high. People buy it and die, but new ones come and buy more. Our… operative has higher tolerance than others, but he succumbed and will require long treatment, should he survive the next few days. And that depends on you.”
“You will be given all resources, transport, equipment, medical supplies including basic overdose treatments. There will be air support and ground support waiting just outside of direct zone of Kotor and Dobrota. You will have to stabilise him and get him out of there.”
“Them” John corrected calmly.
“Excuse me?”
Them. I hope you didn’t consider the possibility of me leaving Ms Adler behind, sir. Whatever else I am, I am mainly a British male” John smirked. “An officer. Maybe not a gentleman, but definitely a doctor. I will not be leaving Irene Adler in hands of someone who is using her to torture someone else. Also, she may be really bloody useful if she owes me a favour. One day.”
Mycroft nodded slowly.
“She would also be owing a favour to the British Government, so it is in your own interest to help me with her, too.”
The aristocrat frowned, but nodded.
“Does this mean you accept the mission?”
John smiled blandly and kept his eyes on Mycroft.
“I will…” the ‘minor official’ paused for a breath. “I will owe you a favour, John. If you agree. A personal favour.”
The soldier nodded and Lord Thomas started pulling out documents.
“Reactivation, with full supplies, support and funding of anything that you will have to pay in a manner of bribes or regular payments for services rendered. You get full combat pay from the moment you leave the Palace until the moment the man in question – and Ms Adler – are safely on British soil, including any required stay in hospitals closer to their current location, should the need for immediate treatment arise. There is a British military command that you’ll be officially assigned to, in order to give you a ‘location’ in the ranks, but the commanding officer will be informed of the special character of your mission and any orders he gives will be superseded by your mission brief and your own decisions regarding next steps. You only have to inform him when you start and when you are expecting to be needing support. Your temporary promotion will make you a Major, bringing you to the same rank as the local CO. These folders contain full description and photographic documentation that we had obtained. Also the contacts that Mr Holmes had made and that have showed willingness to cooperate with someone else than him. They are however not very reliable…”
“If they are willing to talk to others, they may be talking to everyone.”
“Indeed, Captain. How long do you need to prepare…?”
“Have the airplane ready” John smiled and turned back towards the window, hands in his pockets. “I need a transport home, twenty minutes to gather my personal supplies and then a ride to the airport. I will accept basic pay for the duration of the mission, according to my current rank. Anything more please have donated to the veteran fund. Won’t be much, but hey, it may actually double their budget for this decade. I will also need medical assistance during the flight in, and a team ready at any pickup point. Including at least one female medic in each of these.”
“You are sure you will need…?”
John snorted and shrugged.
“I am rather certain I will be also bringing Ms Adler with me, yes. And I’m also reasonably sure she will not be willing to undergo treatment at my hands. Considering her profession, whatever they did to her will leave her with enough trauma to not allow herself to be touched by a male medic. I am being reasonable, yes.”
“Thank you, Captain” the taller man said stiffly. “As of this moment, you are reinstated, with temporary promotion to Major, to be reconfirmed at the end of your mission. The country is grateful for your service.”
“Very well” John nodded curtly. “Please have a car ready. Preferably staffed with someone I will recognise. I really did grow out of that stupid reflex.”
“Anthea will accompany you” Mycroft said softly. “Is that acceptable?”
“Anthea will be fine. Until… until the next time, then, Mycroft.”
“Thank you, John. I owe you.”
“Yes, you do.”
“John?”
The soldier turned quickly from the door.
“Your cane.”
“Keep it, Myc. You will need it more than I.”
“I will make sure you have the needed support on the plane. I hope it will be enough.”
John shrugged.
“It will have to be. It’s a three hours flight, make sure it’s someone competent.”
Lord Thomas looked between them in confusion.
“I was invalided out, sir” John pointed out calmly.
“I thought it was your leg…”
“Common mistake. It’s my shoulder.”
“There is an experimental treatment that Cap… Major Watson can try. Even applying first round may bring promising results” Mycroft supplied. “I will be sending one of the doctors who are running the trials, John.”
The soldier nodded stiffly and strolled out of the opulent, bright room.

#

“Are you sure…”
“Perfectly.”
“And he will do it?”
“He took the mission, Thomas. He is, after all, an officer. Above anything else, John Watson is a soldier.”