He'd turned off the lights in the hallway.
Sherlock stepped through the door onto the landing, his hand searching the wall for a light switch that somehow wasn't there.
He blinked, trying to force his eyes to adjust, but the corridors of his mind palace remained dark. It wasn't a normal sort of darkness – not the everyday sort that came and went with the progress of the sun, but an inky darkness, thick as tar and twice as suffocating. No light filtered through from the street outside – not the yellow of the streetlights with their outdated incandescent bulbs, not the blue, pin-prick lights of phone screens, nor the twinned red and white of passing cars. There was no gold outline around the edge of Mrs Hudson's door, and no starlight filtered through from the empty flat behind him.
He reached out, groping blindly for the banister, and his hands grasped and closed on nothing. He reached behind him and found the edge of the doorframe, felt the fluted wood and old varnish, the deep scar in the joinery that was the relic of an enraged ophthalmologist with a hatchet.
Blindly, he slid his hand across the wall, away from the door, until he found the corner of the landing. With his right hand pressed against it, he moved forward, edging his right foot forward until his toes slid over an unseen edge and he felt cool air on the ball of his foot. Oh-so-carefully, he lowered it, until his bare toes touched the step below.
One down. Sixteen to go.
He was aware, in the back of his mind that he was… in the back of his mind. If this had been real, he would have walked the staircase easily, blinded or no. Muscle memory, acute and accurate perception or his surroundings… he could have skipped down, could have hopped on one leg, could have strolled, perfectly balanced, down the bannister rail. But this wasn't real; this was his mind, and he'd never had a more dangerous enemy.
A second step, painfully tentative, nothingness where he expected his footing to be.
A third step, and a fourth, each as painful as the last. He swayed, scrabbling at the wallpaper for balance.
And then he heard it: - the first sound to break the silence of his mind; a far-off, jaunty whistling.
Footsteps, a quick one-two patter jogging up the steps to the front door. John's footsteps. Keys being lifted in a rapid, musical jangle towards the lock. John's keys. Hands turning the doorknob, a light shove against the door. John's hands.
And the light streamed in.
John breathed light and fast, trying not to make a sound. His heart was beating a rapid tempo, his breath quick with exertion. In his arms, the soldier's body was slackening, but he didn't release his hold.
The darts worked fast, but not fast enough. It was too noisy.
The second man he'd hit had taken upwards of three minutes to go down. Three minutes was too long. Time enough to shoot back, to call for back-up, or just to make one hell of a racket. John was no sniper. He couldn't take out a dozen a minute the way Mary could. His weapon of choice was a pistol, good for close-quarters, easy to conceal, but not so accurate over distance. He needed time to approach, to line up each shot; and besides, the corridor hardly lent itself to the broad view needed to take out a dozen at a time. No; the only option that John could see was to get in close enough to keep them quiet as they went down.
It was an approach not without its risks, he thought, as the soldier he currently had in a choke hold flailed a weak fist in the direction of his groin. He twitched his hips out of the way and renewed the pressure on the man's windpipe. Saliva dribbled from the soldier's mouth and spattered John's shirt-sleeve. He sighed. Why was it never Sherlock who got slobbered on?
Finally, the soldier went lax. John waited a moment or two, just to prevent any effort at last-ditch heroism, and then slid the man quietly down to the floor. Behind him, Irene was methodically removing the clip from each of the soldier's weapons.
John stretched, feeling his back click. His shoulders whined with the effort. Why, he wondered, did Americans all have to be so bloody heavy? Give him a scrawny little Islington drug addict any day.
This corridor really was poorly provided with places to stash bodies, John mused, as he tugged the comatose Private into the scant cover provided by the lee of a doorway. It was almost as if whoever designed it had known…
"Richman reporting," Greg's voice whispered through his earpiece. "Fifth floor cells all check out. No sign of Beggarman."
John waited, poised, still breathing hard, for Mycroft's reply. Only silence answered them. After several moments, Irene activated her own mic.
"Understood. Proceed to fourth-floor south."
"Copy. Over and out."
John straightened, exchanging a glance with Irene. He hoped very much that Mycroft was simply too busy to hang around and chat.
Mary crept noiselessly from the shadow of the stairwell, trying to ignore the shuffling footfalls and harsh breathing that represented Greg's best attempt at stealth. She'd cleared the fifth floor of hostiles with almost laughable ease. Clearly whoever was running the facility these days had got more than a little complacent. She twisted her lip between her teeth absent-mindedly, half-daydreaming about offering them her services. If she had charge of a place like this, a cowboy like Sherlock Holmes would never have got within twenty miles of it. Still, that was what the CIA got for failing to trust their best people.
Not that they were entirely wrong, on that score.
With a steady hand, she raised her rifle to her shoulder and took aim.
Sherlock came to in a rush, feeling the harsh light of the cell even through his closed eyes. For a moment, his dream pursued him, the afterimage of John flickering in front of his eyelids, silhouetted against a blazing light.
Rapidly, he catalogued the information available to him. He was lying face-down on a smooth cement floor, bruised and soaking, but more-or-less unharmed. Harsh light beat against his eyelids, dampness and humidity filled the air, and there was empty space around him. He lay still, listening for the telltale buzz of electronics or anything else that might indicate he was being observed. There was a slight crackle and hiss on the edge of hearing, but it was only the hiss usually attributable to fluorescent lights of a certain age. There was nothing piggybacking onto it, so far as he could tell. He could hear no organic sounds of any kind – no breath, no footsteps, no rustle of clothing. Unobserved then. Good.
He allowed his eyelids to flicker slightly in a way that might have indicated merely a very active dream. The split-second glance confirmed his previous hypothesis. He was alone in the cell.
The orange jumpsuit still hung loose about his waist, but they hadn't completely stripped him, nor removed his underwear. My lucky day, he thought, wiggling a hand beneath him and giving himself a quick and not entirely gratuitous grope. The garrotte wire was secure in the waistband of his pants, as was the modified lock pick in his fly. Good.
With one lithe movement, Sherlock sprang to his feet. He danced a few steps in pleased anticipation.
It was time to get out of this cell.
The steel door to the prison cell had no window. There was an iron bar across it, padlocked with a single heavy chain. No swipe-card access here, Mycroft noted. Some things, it seemed needed to be done the old-fashioned way.
The lock was complex, and none of the guards were carrying the key. That privilege, no doubt, resided with their commanding officer. It took him longer than it should have done to pick the lock, and by the time the last tumbler fell into place, the sweat was standing out on his brow. Despite a certain aptitude, he had never been lying when he claimed that fieldwork was not his natural milieu.
With a snick that was loud in the silence, the lock sprang open. Mycroft drew himself to his full height and took a moment to compose himself. Please, God, let it not be like Serbia.
The door swung open at his touch. A figure sat in the very centre of the cell, a deck of weathered playing cards spread across the table in front of him.
"Hello Mycroft," he said. "You took your sweet time."
A/N: I owe you all a giant apology for how long I've made you wait - and for the various cliff hangers. I'm afraid it's not going to get better any time soon. Being an adult sucks. Love and grateful thanks to anybody who's still reading. I can't promise when you'll get the next update, but I have discovered that reviews make excellent prompts...
'Till next time.