Before Holmes Met Watson — 3
By Kitanya Harrison, writing as Harrison Kitteridge
Besides the quaintness of the mode of transport, the thing John hated the most about flying was how shattered he always felt after a long trip. It didn’t matter if he’d had a good kip and drank his weight in fluids; he always got off the plane feeling disorientated, dehydrated and in the mood to punch things. It’s all that recycled air, John thought, blinking to try and moisten his arid corneas. Kabul was parched, and so was he.
John was taken aback by the immense relief he felt when he entered his stark quarters. The tightness in his chest had eased with each second he got closer to the base, and the sight of his cot, camp stove and canteen almost brought him to his knees. This temporary structure in the middle of a war zone, these humble necessities created more of a feeling of home than the country of his birth. Part of it was his comrades-in-arms. The smiles and warm greetings of “Captain Watson” provided succour he hadn’t quite realised he’d needed. There were people here who knew him, who valued him. There was also a bracing sort of comfort in how unequivocal the mortal threats that surrounded them were. Death comes to us all, but for most it was an abstraction. Its proximity removed some of the fear. John found there was a certain purity in living in purgatory. Afghanistan was filled with friends and foes bent on destruction; England was filled with strangers. John strongly preferred the former.
As news of his return filtered through the base, his surgical team, poker and rugby mates all dropped by to welcome him home with warm hugs and claps to his back. And this was his home. He could see that now. He swallowed over something tight in his throat and emptied his luggage onto his cot. He sorted through the gifts he’d brought back, feeling a bit like Father Christmas. Nearly all of them had asked him to see if he could find the sweets and biscuits that had been their favourites when they were children. John supposed it lessened the sense of insecurity somehow, brought them back to a simpler time, made massive problems seem solvable. A few bottles of spirits also made the rounds. Those were for a bit of fun over a game of cards or to obliterate even temporarily the memories of the particularly bad days when it seemed they’d wandered into hell itself and the Devil had everything turned up to eleven.
John could spin a good yarn when he was in the mood, and his recounting of his sojourn to the mall had his visitors in stitches. He left out the bit about the ravens, because it seemed like too ill an omen. None of the gathered were religious or superstitious, but imagery had the power to lower morale, and, as an officer, it was his duty to keep their spirits up, even if he had to sacrifice a bit of his pride and admit he’d been overwhelmed enough by his shopping expedition to take cover behind indoor shrubbery.
They all shared a bit of scotch, and John listened as they recounted what he’d missed. Thankfully, there’d been only a few minor skirmishes, and, while any single death was keenly felt, the days when the bodies (or what was left of them) had to be stacked like cords of wood were nearly impossible to manage.
A few hours later, John was on his own again. There was one gift left in his bag. Once he’d stumbled across the snow globe with the single, blazing red poppy inside it, he couldn’t leave it behind. He’d even taken the time to have it wrapped at the store. He lay on his back, staring at the ceiling, waiting for the gift’s intended beneficiary to come and welcome him home.
Back in London, Sherlock had managed to wash most of the stink of excrement from him and was in one of the laboratories at St Bartholomew’s Hospital testing the potency of the mushrooms he and Shinwell had collected. Shinwell had a mate of a mate of a bloke who was flatmates with a mycologist. It was a convoluted history to which Sherlock had paid scant attention then routed away from his long-term memory. At the centre of the labyrinth was the claim that this particular variant of Psilocybe had been bred to produce enhanced psychedelic effects. Sherlock’s preliminary tests confirmed that the mushrooms consistently contained much higher levels of the psychoactive compounds than would be expected — enough to defeat the purpose of their creation. The dosage of psilocybin was well above what was ordinarily consumed and would almost certainly poison anyone who consumed them.
Sherlock thought of the greenhouse Shinwell had shovelled full of shit and where he had devoted hours to meticulously minding the spores he’d spent nearly his entire savings on to ensure they sprouted. He called the fruit his “gold nuggets” — they were meant to fund his retirement. There had to be hundreds of pounds of the things.
Shinwell was a good sort for a degenerate, Sherlock thought. They weren’t exactly friends, but there was a measure of trust and loyalty in their relationship that Sherlock felt bound to respect. If the mushrooms had to be scrapped, Shinwell would get spectacularly drunk and instigate a pub brawl, but the next day he would bounce back and find some other get-rich-quick scheme. He always did. But the mushrooms could be salvaged, Sherlock pondered, if instead of drying them and selling them as edibles, the psilocybin were extracted into some sort of tincture that would administer the correct dosage. A new delivery method would set Shinwell apart from his competitors and perhaps even allow him to charge a premium.
Sherlock sketched out some ideas for the extraction and began a rough first attempt at the procedure. In the lab next door, an exhausted graduate student had fallen asleep standing up and missed a crucial step in her experiment, which exploded. It was nothing catastrophic, but it was enough to startle Sherlock into knocking over his equipment and breaking some of his glassware. He cut his hand rather badly and sucked at the gash while he reached for paper towels to staunch the bleeding. He tamped down on the wound and looked for the first aid kit. He spent longer than he’d care to admit awkwardly using tweezers he’d hastily sterilised to remove the splinters himself. He was minutes away from the casualty ward of a major hospital, but he didn’t want to wait for hours to be seen for a laceration, which, while nasty, didn’t appear to need stitches.
After he cleared all the debris from the wound, he cleaned it thoroughly and bandaged his hand. As he replaced the first aid kit, he heard the sound of bees buzzing. How on earth had they found a way in? He turned around and saw an enormous swarm across the room, and his usual fondness for the creatures was supplanted by a deep fear. They were too large, he realised. They were the size of sparrows. They weren’t real.
“I’m hallucinating,” he said.
He was suddenly and violently ill, turning himself inside out vomiting. The extraction. When he’d cut his hand, some of the concentrated extract must have got into the wound. It was being delivered through his blood, and he’d ingested some of it when he’d sucked the injury.
The bees were coming.
There was someone laughing maniacally.
Was it him?
He could feel it slowing down.
It would stop.
He would die.
He needed to speed it up.
The cocaine. It was still in his coat pocket. He needed a syringe. He managed to pry the first aid kit back open, sending its contents flying.
Everything was tinted hot pink, and the sound of the bees tasted like burnt roast.
What was he looking for?
He picked up some ointment and some tablets. No, that wasn’t right.
His heart. It was dying. That’s it: a syringe for the cocaine. He rifled through the mess on the floor until he found one. He crawled back over to his work station and pulled his coat down from the stool where he’d laid it. His hands were too big to fit in the pockets, which were filled with tiny crabs. He shook the coat upside down, emptying everything in his pockets onto the floor. The crabs scurried away, and he slithered on his belly on the floor, following the rolling vials across the room.
He ripped the syringe from its packaging with his teeth. His hands were too small to hold it properly. It told him to go away, that men with small hands weren’t to be trusted. He roared at it to be quiet and shoved its pointy mouth into the vial of cocaine, pulling up the plunger to fill its throat and choke it with the solution.
A vein. He had to find a vein.
He injected himself, felt his heart begin to race, stumbled out of the lab into the hallway and collapsed.