"The first night's the toughest, no doubt about it…when they put you in that cell, when those bars slam home, that's when you know it's for real. A whole life blown away in the blink of an eye. Nothing left but all the time in the world to think about it."
–Ellis Redding, from The Shawshank Redemption
John first met Bill Wiggins in the sweatbox* on the way to Frankland. There were about ten others prisoners in the vehicle that had been picked up from various courts, and Wiggins happened to be in the cramped cell next to his. Some of the other men were chatting casually to one another in a show of bravado. John sat straight and silent and still, too numb even to register Wiggins the first time the lad rapped on the partition between their cells.
"You the doc, an't you?"
John had seen the speaker board, a scrawny twenty-something in a battered, hooded sweatshirt. A wispy, ginger beard did not disguise the unmistakable waxy pallor of a habitual drug user. What made him stand out to John, though, were his quick, shrewd, intelligent eyes that darted here and there as he moved about. "Who wants to know?" John asked.
"I'm Bill, Bill Wiggins. Seen you around on the streets when you was with your detective. 'E used to give me money now and again for findin' things out for him."
John closed his eyes. The reference to Sherlock pierced his heart like a dart tossed by a careless child. Instead of responding, he began rummaging through the small canvas bag that Mrs. Hudson had packed for him as well as his chained wrists would allow.
The bag contained all the things John had asked Mrs. Hudson to put in: toiletries from his bathroom at 221b, the lidocaine plasters he used when his arm and shoulder were acting up, a couple of books and medical journals from his bedside table, his watch, and the trainers he used for running. In addition to these, he saw that she had also included some of her own home-baked shortbread, a packet of biscuits and another of tea, and a small box containing writing paper and envelopes, stamps, six pens and two pencils. John was puzzled when he came across a yellow envelope with Lestrade's writing on the front – For emergencies. The flap was tucked in rather than sealed; when John opened it, he found it contained £100 in cash.
Staring at these unexpected gifts, John felt his eyes burn and a lump begin to form in his throat. He quickly closed the bag and looked away from it, taking slow, deep breaths.
After a moment, the voice in the next cell piped up again. "I know he weren't no fraud, your detective bloke…all of us on the street, we all knew it."
John sat for a moment, absorbing this statement. Finally, he spoke just loudly enough to be heard over the motor.
"I'll call you 'Doc,'" the voice called back cheerfully. "You can call me 'Wiggy.'"
For the first time in days, John managed a smile. It was small and fleeting, but it was genuine.
The hours following his arrival at Frankland were a blur.
They were taken from the sweatbox one at a time to the induction wing. Wiggins went before John. As the younger man stood to exit his cell, he murmured in a low voice, quickly, so only John could hear him.
"Listen, Doc…this is my third time in the nick** for a drugs offense, yeah? So listen to me and until we meet up again make sure you hang onto whatcha got and don't show any weakness, yeah?"
"Move," the prison officer said sharply before John could respond. Then Wiggins was gone.
In many ways, John later ruefully reflected, the prison's regimental induction process wasn't that much different from the military's – at least, from what he could remember. The prison receptions wing was a long, pale blue corridor with a series of heavy metal doors along two landings, and it seemed to John that he visited every holding room it housed, with long intervals of waiting between each one.
In the reception room they relieved John of his canvas bag, removed his wrist restraints, fingerprinted him and took his picture. He was then told to sit while one prison officer began taking down his personal information and another began going through and logging the contents of his bag.
It was all very routine and businesslike; the first prison officer asked the questions in the toneless manner of a person who has asked the same questions thousands of times before, filling out the forms without meeting John's eyes. In a sudden, unexpected return of his own gallows humor, John had a sudden urge to give him his army rank and serial number, too, but then decided being snarky might not be the right foot to start on. So instead he answered readily and politely, keeping an eye on the man going through his things in the meanwhile with the uneasiness of having his personal property handled without permission.
When the forms were filled out, John turned to find the his things divided into three separate piles.
"The toiletries, stationary, writing tools and reading materials are fine; you'll get those back when you're assigned your cell," the officer said briskly, indicating the first pile. The food you can't have – you eat what we give you."
John watched regretfully as the baked goods and tea were set aside. That left one last pile – this one containing his trainers, watch, lidocaine plasters, and the envelope with money from Lestrade, as well as the bag itself.
"The meds we'll give to the infirmary; you'll let someone know when you need them and they'll dole 'em out. The money we hang onto and dole out to you for the canteen," the officer said, indicating the envelope. "Cells are left unlocked when you're not in 'em, so it'll just get stolen if you keep it there. Is your watch waterproof?"
"Then you have a choice – wear it 24-7, including in the shower, or leave it to be stored with the rest of your property. Up to you."
John thought of Wiggins telling him to hang onto whatever he could. "I'll keep it," he said.
The officer nodded. "You'll get it back later, then. The bag will be logged and stored. You have a choice with the shoes…you can have them stored as is and we'll issue you a pair of plimsolls with Velcro fastenings, or you can keep these after we've taken the laces out and have someone from outside bring you an approved pair later."
John thought quickly. It would be better to have shoes that could actually be done up, but these were his, and he was going to have to make do with enough prison-issued items as it was. "I'll keep them."
"Right then." The officer quickly removed the laces from John's trainers, set them on top of the canvas bag, and put the shoes with the items that were to be returned to John later. He then motioned another officer over. "This one's ready to be searched."
As the officer led him out of the room, John glanced over his shoulder in time to see the reception staff sampling Mrs. Hudson's good shortbread.
He supposed it was better than just having them throw it away.
"Strip," the officer in the next holding room ordered. "Everything off, now."
He said it with such calm, professional authority that John could feel his military training kicking in, forcing him to obey without hesitation. He'd known this part was coming, anyway.
There were two of them, both wearing gloves, one watching while the other patted John down. It was quick, impersonal and noninvasive, no more unpleasant in the process than any cursory medical exam might be, but somehow worse for the utter lack of human interest…John felt more like a dog at a Kennel Club show being checked for potential faults than a person. When it was over, the first officer nodded to the second, who handed John a folded pile of clothes: a dull gray tracksuit, blue t-shirt, socks and underwear. He also gave him a towel and a bar of soap and directed John's attention to a shower cubicle at the other end of the room.
"Take a shower, then you can get dressed…leave the upper things off, though, you see the doc next," the second officer told him. He took John's neatly folded clothes and set them aside. "These will be put into storage for you." John couldn't help casting a wistful look at his black haversack. In his own way, he was as attached to it as Sherlock had been to his Belstaff, though in a less ostentatious way.
John showered quickly, toweled himself dry, and pulled on the underpants, socks and track bottoms. Carrying the t-shirt and sweatshirt, he followed the officer in his sock feet along the corridor to a small examining room. A gray-haired man in a white lab coat motioned to the examining table. "Have a seat." The officer who had escorted John waited just inside the door, watching. John noticed he had a small baton and a can of pepper spray on his belt.
The prison doctor took John's height and weight and peered into his ears, his eyes, and down his throat. He listened to John's heart and lungs, palpitated his abdomen, and took his temperature, stopping often to write down his findings. He also questioned John as to his general health. Taking note of the scars on John's body from his injury in Afghanistan – the scar from the entry wound over his shoulder blade on his back and the even larger and more ragged scar let by the exit would sprawled over the clavicle in front, as well as the scar from the chest tube – he raised his eyebrows and said, "Gunshot wound? That doesn't look like it came from a handgun."
The doctor studied him. "Ex-military?"
John nodded, a shadow crossing his dark blue eyes. He hated admitting to his military service now because he loathed the thought that his new status as a convicted criminal might bring dishonor to his former comrades. Having the press refer to him as "bachelor John Watson" before Sherlock's suicide had been irritating; his post-arrest tabloid nickname of "disgraced ex-soldier John Watson" was exceedingly painful to him.
"Any lingering effects?" the doctor questioned.
John shook away the thoughts of what his old army mates must think of him now and gave the doctor a brief clinical description of his injury, what treatment he had received, and what medications he occasionally took now for residual pain and episodic flare-ups from the resultant nerve damage.
The doctor's eyebrows raised. "Medical man, are you?"
"I was an army trauma surgeon, then a GP," John replied quietly.
The doctor regarded him thoughtfully for a moment before returning his attention to John's file. Had that been a shade of interest, even respect, in his eyes?
"Says here you've been treated for PTSD. Any medication for that?"
"Not for over a year now. I was initially on tricyclic antidepressants, first imipramine, later desipramine."
"Any suicidal tendencies?"
For a brief moment, the thought of his Sig Sauer P226R flashed through John's mind. He wondered if it was still safely hidden in his closet at 221b, or if the police had routed it out during their search. If they had, Lestrade hadn't mentioned it.
The doctor made a note of that, then briskly closed the file. "Right. I'm authorized to prescribe medications for you if you're having pain or feel the need for your anti-anxiety meds to be restarted, so you'll let me know, all right, Doctor…" He glanced in the file again. "Watson?" And he held his hand out for John to shake it.
Stunned by this professional courtesy, John hesitated before slowly taking the offered hand. "I will, thanks, Doctor…?" he hesitated in turn, eyebrows raised, questioning.
"Bell. Joseph Bell." He released John's hand and looked to the officer. "We're finished here." He looked at John again, and for a moment it seemed he wanted to say something more, but in the end he just told them to send along the next new inmate.
Fully dressed once again in his new prison garb (though still in his stocking feet), John stood before the table in the final holding room while they doled out his prison kit to him: a plate, bowl, cup and eating utensils (all made from plastic) along with a packet of cereal, UHT milk, teabags and sugar packets for his breakfast in the morning, a towel, and an armful of scratchy bedding. He was also given a PIN code which he was told was for £1 credit on the phones on the wings, two postage-paid envelopes with bland, prison-issue paper, and his new prison ID card, already stamped with his photo and the number SJ1311. His approved items (including his watch and shoes, now free of their laces) were returned to him, along with two gray jumpers, a pair of gray trousers, and five pairs of prison socks and underwear.
"Do you smoke?" the issuing reception clerk asked.
"Then that's everything except for your Prisons Handbook." She set the booklet on top of John's bundle and waved him away.
It was a lot to carry; John had a hard time keeping the tall pile steady as they moved him into the hallway to line up with the other new prisoners. Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted Wiggins swiftly bundling his kit into the bed sheets and followed suit, earning an approving grin from the younger man as he did so.
A rather unpleasant-looking tall officer with black hair and narrow eyes approached the prisoner at the head of the line, his baton in his hand. "This way." He motioned along the corridor and, flanked by other screws armed with batons, the new inmates moved onto the main wing.
There was a lot of noise here – too much noise. The high ceiling caught the loud voices of the dozens of inmates lining the four landings and threw them back again, doubling their shouts of "All right there, mate? Like your new home? Nice, innit?" John looked up at the faces, some malicious, some amused, a few sympathetic, all trying to get a read on the "new boys." Some of the other first-timers were clearly intimidated, but John had seen a lot during his years in the army and during his time with Sherlock, and he recognized this for what it was…hazing, and an attempt to reinforce an established pecking order. To show weakness now could prove dangerous, so John kept his features set in the stoic mask that had always annoyed Harry.
The induction orderly put him in a single pad next door to Bill Wiggins's. Before he left, the orderly handed John a sandwich wrapped in plastic. "It's past mealtime, so this is to tide you over. You should already have your breakfast in your kit." Without waiting for an answer, he left the cell.
There was a harsh sound of steel-on-steel as the door slammed shut and locked behind him – a very final sort of sound that did little to muffle the noise from the landing.
John shivered a little. The cell was rather cold – particularly to a man whose internal thermostat had never really adjusted back to England's climate after his time in the Middle East. A hot water pipe running from wall-to-wall at the far end of the cell seemed to be the only source of heat.
He stood just by the door, belongings in his arms, and took stock of the tiny cell.
The place smelled strongly of disinfectant. Both the walls and the furniture had been painted a dull off-white. A narrow metal bunk was bolted to the wall on the left side of the cell. The mattress had been cleaned, but John could see faint stains on it. On the far wall at the bed's head was a fair-sized cupboard, its door open slightly to reveal a short clothes bar with a few welded hangers and a lower shelf. Below the door were two large drawers and a shelf on the bottom for shoes.
On the wall to his right, adjacent to the bed, was a small wooden desk with a single drawer. It, too, was bolted to the wall. Attached to the wall above it was a small open cupboard with four shelves. On the same wall to the right of the desk was a small sink with a towel bar. It had a small, round metal mirror above it. Facing the sink, on the same wall as the door to the cell, the toilet was in a separate cubicle. It had neither a seat nor a door.
Squarely opposite the cell door was the single, tiny window with frosted glass. John set his things down on the bunk and went to it. He knew it would have bars on the outside, of course, but he was hoping he would be able to open it for a breath of fresh air. He could – by about six inches.
When he looked through it, he found it faced a brick wall.
John swallowed hard and looked down, trying to steady his breathing, which had quickened with his heart rate. On the windowsill, someone had scratched the words, "Arrive a man, leave an animal."
He closed his eyes to shut the sight of it out and clenched his left hand in an effort to stop the involuntary twitch that had begun. He wanted to do what he usually did when this happened – shove that hand into his pocket to hide it – but his tracksuit had no pockets.
John eased himself down to the floor and turned so he was sitting with his back to the wall, facing the door to his cell – his new home, the place where, he suddenly understood, he was to spend most of the next ten years of his life.
It wasn't exactly a dungeon…he'd slept in poorer places than this, particularly when he was in the army. But that had been for something. This was…this was nothing.
He thought he'd known what nothing was.
"Nothing happens to me," he'd told Ella Thompson, his therapist. After a vivid, colorful sojourn in medical school and then the military, he thought his life was over, just like the two careers that had been stolen from him the day an insurgent's bullet had shattered his health. But the dreary bedsit he had felt condemned to by the MoD had not been as bleak as this room and, more importantly, the door had not been locked.
John remembered those early days back in London, limping restlessly around the city, killing time between physical therapy and psychotherapy appointments, thinking, thinking, thinking. He hadn't known what he would do…hadn't known what he wanted to do now that the life he'd forged for himself – a life of command and competence, a life of purpose and service that had suited him well and made him feel real and alive – had been snatched from him. Then came Sherlock.
John lowered his forehead to his knees and threaded his fingers in his short blond hair. In the six months since Sherlock's death, he had done everything he could to avoid thinking of his flat mate – his best friend, for so he had become. Brilliant, frustrating, maddening, amazing, exasperating Sherlock. John had had a lot of "mates," but few real friends. Many might not know the difference, but John did, and it mattered to him. His friendship was a gift John gave with extreme caution, and many were puzzled by his choice of recipients – the morose and anti-social James Sholto, his former commanding officer; the eccentric and sharp-tongued Artie Doyle, his mentor at Bart's…and, of course, the consulting detective and self-proclaimed sociopath Sherlock Holmes.
John considered Sherlock his best friend not because Sherlock had always acted like one, but because he gave John what he most needed – a purpose – and because Sherlock was like another part of himself – the better, truer part.
Sherlock had brought him back to life.
John knew he was no Sherlock, but he had thought – hoped – he was of some small use to the man. He could help him, shepherd him, keep him safe and healthy, and direct him on the road to becoming great.
No. Sherlock was already great. But John could help him to become, as Greg had once said, good.
But in the end, John had failed to keep Sherlock safe. He had abandoned him at the crucial moment, allowed himself to be lured away, leaving Sherlock at the mercy of Moriarty, who had somehow caused him to commit suicide.
Head still against his knees, John squeezed his eyes shut. Maybe he deserved to be here. The crime he had committed was, after all, far greater than the one of which he had been accused.
He wished, though, that he had died with Sherlock. Or better still, died instead of him.
John did not move again that night. He was still in the same position two hours later when a prison officer opened the flap in his cell door to look in at him during the nightly head count, and he was still in that position an hour after that when the lights went out, leaving him in near-total darkness.
*sweatbox: an armored van used for transporting prisoners.
**nick: slang term for a prison.