Irene stared numbly out of her office window overlooking the River Thames. The mission had been an unprecedented success. Not only had John revealed the location of the bomb and several rebel bases, the boy had also unwittingly exposed the makeshift defences that could be erected in case of an invasion. Special ops were currently planning counter-strategies based on the intelligence Irene had gathered tonight.
However, instead of triumph or relief, Irene felt only a gnawing sense of guilt: a dirty feeling that clung to her mind like cobwebs. For nearly a decade she had been a ruthless spy, untouched by the bitterness and pain she left in her wake. The countless lives destroyed and the immeasurable damage done could always be justified in the name of Queen and country. There was no logical reason why she would feel anything in the aftermath of this mission, but John's pale face haunted her vision. Every time she closed her eyes, Irene could see the boy's innocent smile as he'd waved goodbye to her. She would never see him alive again. The muted voice of her conscience screamed how wrong this was, but she felt detached from the thoughts, as if she was merely watching someone else banging against a frosted window…and that upset her almost as much as the guilt.
"You did well tonight," said Lestrade through the open door. He looked weary but triumphant, like a majestic old warship returning to harbour after years at sea. "We've got enough information to shut this whole thing down tomorrow."
"Do you ever wonder," asked Irene pensively, looking out of the window rather than at her boss, "whether we are doing the right thing?"
Although, Lestrade's expression did not change she could see that her question had affected him. A decent, honest man, Lestrade was plague by his conscience even more than Irene and yet his dedication to the Service remained unwavering. He would continue to do all that was necessary to defend the realm even if it meant sacrificing his soul to be chipped away piece by piece until there would be nothing left.
"You think we should let this scenario play out?" he asked quietly. "Sherlock was badgering me for the same thing. Hethinks that Moriarty will show up if we wait long enough, what's your reason?"
"Nothing." Irene smiled bitterly at her reflection in the window. "You misunderstood my question…but it doesn't matter. I'm going home now; is there anything you want to update me on before I leave?"
Lestrade gave her a searching look before stuffing a hand in his pocket and pulling out a USB stick. "Joint Intelligence Committee report on potential sources of the nuclear material inside that dirty bomb just came in five minutes ago – basically they found zilch. The permanent secretary even told me it was impossible that the rebels could have a dirty bomb."
"All the intelligence sources we have turn up nothing, not even a hint of a black market deal or a weapons facility acting unusual?" asked Irene, feeling a sense of dread washing over her. Instincts honed by years in the field immediately warned her that something was very wrong. Somewhere, they had missed something vital.
"No, but that doesn't mean anything. We can't call off the mission because of the risk that the rebels might not have a dirty bomb…."
Irene felt a surge of adrenaline rushing through her body. Even if her logical mind had yet to reach a decision, the rest of her body evidently trusted her instincts. This could not be right. The special unit tasked with keeping track of nuclear material was highly proficient at their job: tracking down unaccounted sources of nuclear material. If they were convincedthat the rebels did not have a nuclear bomb – there was no reason for anyone else to disagree.
"But there's no evidence to suggest they have one!" exclaimed Irene. "There's no evidence at all. If no sources of enriched uranium are missing, then whatever is in that black box Sherlock described isn't nuclear material."
"Hold on," replied Lestrade, "that box is so small it couldn't contain anything other than uranium, or it would be useless as a bomb!"
Irene spun around and grabbed her boss by the lapels. Lestrade did not look too stunned at being manhandled, Section D was filled with highly strung operatives.
"Listen to me!" she almost shouted, "we are being played. This is a trap!"
At those words Lestrade's eyes widened with fear and amazement. His previously calm but exasperated expression evaporated. Irene could almost see the wheels turning in his head and the idea taking hold inside his mind, as it had done in hers.
"Oh God," he gasped, going slightly limp against her grip, "you can't be serious."
"Lestrade, if it's impossible that the rebels have got a dirty bomb, then they don't have a dirty bomb. Just think about how easy this mission has been from the beginning. It's almost as if the rebels wanted to co-operate."
Irene let go of her boss's suit and he took a moment to compose himself.
"Damn it, Irene!" he hissed, staring past her out of the window at the sparkling lights of London. "I swear sometimes you are worse than Sherlock."
Sally Donovan and Anderson were looking about as pleased to be sitting in the conference room at one a.m. as any self-respecting human being with a life would.
"Seriously, what did the freak do this time?" asked Sally wearily. She'd been stuck in the surveillance van with Lestrade all evening, and she looked as if no amount of caffeine in the world would be able to keep her awake for a moment longer.
"I told you we couldn't work with him on this," Anderson concurred. "I assume he's why you dragged us in here when we are supposed to be in bed?"
"It's not about Sherlock," said Irene flatly. Both her subordinates glared silently at her, no doubt wanting to make some remark about a conflict of interest. "It's about the JIC report."
Lestrade explained their brief conversation and his own thoughts and reasoning in calm, neutral tones, but it didn't take a spy to realise his mind was in turmoil.
"So you're saying, just because those idiots across the river couldn't come up with a plausible scenario about how the rebels got themselves a dirty bomb, we've all been duped?" asked Anderson derisively. "I'm sorry, but I'd rather believe our sources."
"We don't have sources, Anderson," bit out Irene, feeling her patience with the man slipping. "The only information we have about this dirty bomb came from Mycroft Holmes."
"Are you saying Mycroft Holmes is…lying to us?" asked Sally cautiously.
"No, of course not," snapped Lestrade, massaging his temples to ease the tension headache he was no doubt developing.
"But the point remains we have anonymous intelligence that we cannot verify against the very real fact that, even with all the resources of the JIC, no one has been able to find the slightest hint of evidence that the rebels actually have a dirty bomb," continued Irene. "We are hinging our entire operation on information we cannot verify or assess. We should pull back and take some more time to actually gather real intelligence on this rebel cell before simply taking them out. Right now we are effectively going in blind – the special ops assault plan makes far too many assumptions, which will cost lives."
"We need to speak to Mycroft," concluded Lestrade, picking up the phone on the desk.
"No," said Irene suddenly. She wasn't sure what made her hesitant: perhaps it was residual resentment against the man who had destroyed her previous life and almost caused her death, or perhaps her subconscious had picked up on something she hadn't yet logically processed. "You need to call off the special ops, now."
"You do realise that Sherlock could be assembling a nuclear bomb below our feet," objected Anderson.
"If I needed someone to state the obvious, Anderson, you would actually be useful," snapped Irene. She turned back to Lestrade. "You have to do it – the lives of three hundred men are at stake."
"But we've got information on what the terrorist defences are like. Does it matter whether they have a nuclear bomb or not, we still need to take them out," protested Sally.
Lestrade glared up at her from his semi-bent position at the head of the table. "Christ, Sally, if there isn't a nuclear bomb this whole set up is a terrorist trap and everything the boy's fed us would be a lie."
"You need to call them off," insisted Irene vehemently.
Lestrade looked terribly torn for a moment; they had been working around the clock on this mission, and Lestrade had poured everything he had into making sure it would be a success. However, when he eventually picked up the phone, neither Sally nor Anderson protested.
Sherlock sat in the empty bunker with John perched on his lap. The boy had wormed his way into Sherlock's private space even faster than Irene Adler had managed to. Within a few hours, John had progressed from just wanting to hold his hand to sitting on top of him. For some strange reason, Sherlock couldn't bring himself to push the bony child off his legs. The logical part of his brain justified his inaction by telling him it would help to gain the boy's trust, but Sherlock knew he'd had John's trust – and even love – long before today. The completely illogical part of his brain treacherously suggested that he might be attached to the boy…which was impossible.
By all accounts the child was a dangerous terrorist, and the main target of Sherlock's mission. Once he delivered the boy to Mycroft, John would be interrogated and sent either to prison or to a mental institution, depending on how psychologically damaged he was. Even if Sherlock wanted to "rescue" John, he would never be able to fool Mycroft long enough to get either of them to safety – not that he would ever do something so sentimental and idiotic.
"I like Irene," said John abruptly as he cut the copper wires down to size. "Do you think she'd like to visit the base sometime?"
"No, she doesn't like small spaces," Sherlock replied, and went back to studying the bomb schematics.
"So…I won't get to see her again?" John sounded unusually disappointed, considering he had only spent a matter of hours with Irene.
"No," Sherlock said flatly – and then realised that upsetting John was not going to be conducive to a successful evening of work. "Unless you go up to the surface again to see her."
John remained uncharacteristically quiet, but at least the look of devastation had disappeared. Twenty minutes of efficient silence later, John suddenly started talking again.
"Am I going to see you again – after all this is over?" he asked, staring solemnly at Sherlock.
For some illogical reason, Sherlock found it almost impossible to look back into John's wide, blue eyes. "Unlikely," muttered Sherlock. He was suddenly overcome with the urge to push the boy away as far as possible.
"But, I'll be able to come to the surface any time I want by then," said John, sounding almost desperate. "I can come and visit you, right?"
The feeling of claustrophobia was not unknown to him, but usually Sherlock was only overcome with the sensation in very tight spaces. Somehow, this child had managed to trigger the same reaction just by sitting on his lap. He reached out a hand and shoved John off his knee.
"We need to get this done," Sherlock ordered sharply. "Stop wasting time asking stupid questions."
He turned away so that he wouldn't have to see John's expression.
Three hours later, with the preliminary wiring in place, Sherlock had been allowed to return above ground under strict instructions to return early tomorrow evening. As he walked out under the dark night sky, Sherlock wanted to breathe a sigh of relief, but he knew he didn't have time for such emotion – it was already ten past four in the morning. The JIC report would have been released more than an hour ago; plenty of time for everyone to have digested its contents. He needed to find Irene immediately, and by a quick process of deduction, he decided to place his bet on MI5 headquarters. It took him just under nineteen minutes to walk back to Thames House, but by the time he reached the front door the sky had already begun to lighten, and a sliver of red could be seen on the horizon.
When Sherlock stepped out of the lift, he saw Irene standing in Section D's open-plan main office, surrounded by several men who definitely didn't work for the counter-terrorism department. A sharp, piercing moment of shock was quickly followed by cool, relentless logic. Even as Irene turned to greet him, Sherlock had already formulated an alternative plan.
"Heard the news yet?" asked one of the burly men. "Little Miss Muffet here has just cancelled our entire special op." The officer sounded more amused than angry, and Irene gave him a very sarcastic smile.
"Sherlock, I need to talk to you in private."
The other two special ops men wolf-whistled, but were quickly silenced by another glare from Irene.
In the confines of Irene's office, Sherlock could tell immediately that she was both relieved and apprehensive – an intriguing mix of emotions for a woman who usually held such mastery over common sentiment. However, he could also see that she hadn't realised just how dangerous her position had become. The men outside had done a brilliant job of convincing her they really were a few stragglers from the special ops team who wanted nothing more than to chat.
He had intended to whisk her away to safety before the men could arrive, but apparently fate and Mycroft had conspired to thwart him. There was nothing he could do now but "roll with the punches", as Irene was fond of saying.
"The JIC report on nuclear materials came back negative," she said, and then stared at Sherlock as if expecting him to look surprised. He raised one appraising eyebrow and settled himself in the comfortable chair behind her desk. In truth, he had known what the report would say even before the JIC had started their investigation. Keeping tabs on nuclear materials was a hobby of his, and he trusted the various sources he had cultivated over the years much more than anything a group of desk-bound bureaucrats could discover.
"You're not surprised?" Irene scrutinised him for a moment from across her polished black desk. "You knew they would find nothing…. How?"
"I have my sources," replied Sherlock cryptically. Now was not the right time to start confessing to all the secrets he had taken with him after leaving MI5.
"But then, you must know that the whole thing is a set-up!" cried Irene. "Why didn't you say something before? If I hadn't – Jesus, Sherlock!" She stopped short of slamming her palms in front of him, but only because she didn't want to damage her own desk.
"I knew you'd figure it out in time, and even if you didn't, I planned to be back in time to stop the operation anyway."
She glared at him as if it was all somehow his fault. "You never learnt the meaning of the expression teamwork, did you?"
"I work alone, I always have. Alone is what I want. Alone protects me."
"Well, on the bright side, at least the rebels don't actually have a nuclear bomb," said Irene, pretending that she hadn't heard the last sentence.
"That's a bit optimistic of you," replied Sherlock, placing his hands together under his chin and staring up at the dove grey ceiling. He took the risk of a quick sideways glance out of her office at the men standing outside. They were still talking to each other jovially and sipping hot beverages from mugs. However, they had positioned themselves casually in a line, such that all of them were able to keep an eye on Sherlock and Irene through the glass walls of her office without really looking.
Outside the sun was beginning to rise, turning the sky into a mixture of dazzling colours and bathing the iconic skyline of London in golden rays.
"Well, if they haven't got any nuclear material, how can they have a bomb?"
Sherlock took a deep breath and closed his eyes, retrieving the threads of his previous analysis from their storage space in his "mind palace".
"Think," he said with a wicked smile. "It's the new sexy." The attempt at humour only served to frustrate Irene. "There is a black box, too small to carry conventional explosives, and yet it needs to be wired so that it is at the epicentre of a bomb."
"Yes, thank you for the recap," replied Irene sarcastically
"The rebels are planning to set off this device under the Houses of Parliament. They have prepared the logistical side of things down to the minutest detail. They have obtained building plans, schedules for building works, timetables of maintenance staff – everything. They're awfully set on making sure that little black box makes it to the basement of the Houses of Parliament. If the box is not a bomb, but requires a surge of electric current just like a bomb, what do you think it could be?"
Irene's eyes darted wildly. "I don't know – "
"Think!" he commanded urgently, without changing his expression.
"What device can fit into a shoe box and needs an electric trigger to go off?"
"…An electromagnetic pulser," she whispered as the revelation dawned. "We've been looking at the wrong things all along – they're going to set it off under the Houses of Parliament when the House is in session…but the electric systems have built-in defences…."
"Yes," said Sherlock quietly, "but pacemakers don't."
He knew immediately the moment all the pieces fell into place. Irene's face contorted into a look of shock, fear and anger. "Mycroft! They're going to kill Mycroft! Someone leaked information about his pacemaker. We have to warn him…."
"No need," said Sherlock flatly. "Those men outside, they're here to grab you – so I suggest you duck."
Without waiting for her to reply, Sherlock slipped his hands under Irene's desk and pulled out the gun she kept in the hidden compartment.
This was going to be interesting .
Production Notes: On pacemakers and arrhythmias
Remember way back in Chapter 4 when Mycroft has an appointment with a cardiologist? I really enjoyed building this little detail early on in the story. I actually gave Mycroft Holmes a real heart condition – although in the end the actual condition didn't come into play in this story because it was complex to explain. If anyone has medical knowledge I am sure they can spot the glaring flaw in Sherlock's deduction of the rebel plans.
The three main intelligence gathering bodies in the UK are GCHQ (who are the people that tap communications/hack computers), MI6 (the Secret Intelligence Service), and MI5 (the Security Service). MI6 and MI5 are not directly comparable to the CIA and FBI. MI5 are predominantly involved in protecting the UK but they also do a great deal of counter terrorism work abroad as well. MI6 also gathers intelligence within UK borders but predominantly works abroad.
In this story both MI5 and MI6 are militarised – in real life the intelligence officers are private citizens with no powers of arrest, no official weapons licenses and they have to gain a court ruling if they want to survey so much as a chip shop. MI6/MI5 do not keep a squad of special forces trained killers on their payroll. Usually they call in the SAS or SCO-19 (the armed branch of the Metropolitan police). I felt that in this dystopia MI5/MI6 would have much more power and their own private armies to boot. They are essential in subjugating the Empire and maintaining British rule.
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