Good God, he was cold. Could a paralytic also lower body temperature like this? Or was that the side-effect of a still-experimental chemical compound? Or maybe Dr. Stapleton and her colleagues weren't aware of its full effects on humans if they had only ever tested on primates.
Either way, this was bad. Very bad.
"But a palace? He said it was a palace," Dr. Stapleton repeated.
"Yeah, well he would, wouldn't he," John replied, with something between exasperation and resignation, as they left Sherlock to his own mental devices.
"Is he an ego-maniac, your friend? Always playing by his own rules, no regard for anyone else?"
"Oh, yeah," he answered but was barely aware of what he was saying. The room with the cages was dim again. He could feel his heartbeat speed up. Telling himself that it had all been a stupid, drug-induced hallucination wasn't working.
"So . . . glow-in-the-dark rabbits," he said abruptly. He wasn't particularly keen on Baskerville's genetic experiments but it was something to natter on about. "Why jellyfish DNA? Why not fireflies, like David Ow?"
Dr. Stapleton glanced sideways at him. "You're thinking of the American tobacco plant experiment from the 1980s."
John shrugged. "Little hard not to see the similarities. Except, if I remember right, the original goal was to make a tobacco plant resistant to some antibiotic. Adding the firefly gene was just a way of marking the cells where the successful gene manipulation was. What's the point of making rabbits glow?"
"I'm afraid that's classified."
"Oh. OK." Conversation over then. John stuffed his fists in his pockets and leaned back against the wall. The war-instinct to keep his back covered was raging hard, and there was no real harm in indulging it.
Dr. Stapleton stared at him. "That's it? You're not going to push for details?"
"Would you tell me if I did?"
"There you go. I know how military secrets work. I used to be a captain myself."
"You were an army doctor," Dr. Stapleton mused aloud. "But your friend – "
"Is neither. He might push for details, the ones that he hasn't already deduced. But I'm not him."
"You don't like me," the scientist said suddenly.
John shrugged again. "I don't have any particular reason to."
"I told you I had no choice. Bluebell couldn't stay at home with Kirsty and I couldn't bring her back to Baskerville without jeopardizing my position here. You've met Barrymore; can you imagine trying to explain to him what I'd done?"
John could, actually, and what he imagined was ugly. "Err . . . if you don't mind my asking, Dr. Stapleton . . . on how earth could your daughter's rabbit have been mixed up with one from Baskerville?"
Instead of answering, she turned from him and braced herself against one of the cages. "You don't have children yourself."
"Then you wouldn't understand. I barely understand it."
"I lied. It wasn't a mix-up. It was deliberate. Victoria, err, Bluebell was a genetic experiment from the moment of her conception, before I gave her to Kirsty."
He could barely feel the floor anymore and that was a minor blessing. The recovery position was not exactly the most comfortable arrangement of arms and legs, especially for those that had been subjected to gunshot wounds. But he had promised Sherlock he would be fine. That included making sure he wouldn't choke to death on any bodily fluids while unconscious or injure himself during a seizure.
Of course, in both of those instances he would not be wide awake and aware of what was happening to him, as he was now.
Nor would he be quite as terrified.
What followed was a fairly classic tale of workaholic mum with a world of guilt loaded on her shoulders by herself, and her husband, and her mother, but not her daughter. Not Kirsty. Kirsty, at the tender age of six, understood and accepted that according to the laws of the universe, Mummy just couldn't be there for her birthday, or Christmas, or recitals, because she Had To Go To Work.
The twist was how Jacqui Stapleton snapped the night of Kirsty's birthday, and promised a Really Special Surprise To Make Up For It. And while seething with rage, she oversaw the birthing of the kits of Doe 244 – she of the jellyfish gene experiment. The official record showed a birthing number that was one less than the accurate number.
"I was half-hoping Bluebell would die on her own, she was so young and motherless, but she didn't," Dr. Stapleton sighed. "Then I thought I could find another rabbit and replace her but would you believe, not a single pet store in a two hundred kilometer radius had rabbits, let alone rabbits the right age and coloring? And I searched. Believe me, I searched! But then, I realized that Bluebell wasn't expressing the jellyfish gene like her littermates were and I thought, well, maybe I wouldn't have to do any covering of my tracks."
John frowned. "But Bluebell did eventually start to glow."
"Yes. I have a theory that removing her from her mother and littermates immediately suppressed the gene expression until puberty but it's not exactly a theory I can pursue. You understand." She gave John a quirk of her eyebrows and continued. "Bluebell went into puberty at the normal time, around three and a half months. Normal signs – nipping, irritability . . . "
"Glowing like a fairy."
Dr. Stapleton smile wryly. "That too. David – my husband - had always mistrusted BluebellI think that only confirmed his suspicions." Her eyes met John's. "I'd planned it perfectly. Bluebell was going to the vet to be spayed. If Kirsty noticed anything different about the rabbit that came home, we could chalk it up to the surgery. But the night before, Bluebell disappeared. Not escaped, because the hutch door was still latched. Deliberately kept latched."
John fought hard to swallow nervously. Something about her look raised his hackles. "Your husband took Bluebell to force your hand?"
"To force me to quit my job. He said that Baskerville had twisted my ethics and priorities, that he couldn't recognize the woman he'd married anymore. He said that he'd go to my superiors with Bluebell as proof to get me sacked if I didn't quit of my own volition. And if he had to do that, he'd divorce me and sue for custody of Kirsty."
She paused for breath and then said, mildly, "so that's why Bluebell had to die. And David . . . had to be persuaded to see the error of his ways."
The words snuck out of his lips before he could think. " . . . what did you – "
Swiftly and smoothly Dr. Stapleton interrupted. "Why did your friend take on Kirsty's case about Bluebell? Did he . . . suspect . . . anything?"
"Not really," John replied hastily. "He'd dismissed it at first. It wasn't until he met you and heard your last name that he put Kirsty's email and Baskerville together."
"So he's good at making those kinds of connections." The scientist fiddled with some instruments left out. "Are you two also good at following through with them?"
John stopped. "I'm sorry?"
"Mr. Holmes guessed that I compromised the security of one of my projects. He practically blurted it out in front of my superior. And now you know the full extent of what I did. So what I need to know right now is this: what do you intend to do with this knowledge?"
"Um . . . nothing." John stared at her, trying to read her expression, her body language, in the dim light. What was she planning? How far would she go? And for that matter, how far had she already gone?
Suddenly Sherlock appeared in the doorway. "Dr. Stapleton, I need your computer access. Right now."
The worst part about being paralyzed was how claustrophobic he felt inside his own body. Every muscle movement was beyond control. As an experiment, he'd tried to hold his breath for a second or two but even that was impossible. If he couldn't control his breathing, he would not be able to force himself to keep breathing once his diaphragm succumbed to the paralytic.
With luck, he'd pass out from lack of oxygen before he felt his heart stutter and stop.
"That's as far as my access goes, I'm afraid."
"There must be an override, a password," John protested. He was feeling better here by the computers but even so, the faster Sherlock got his access the faster they could get out of Baskerville and away from its creeper scientists.
"I imagine so that that'd be Major Barrymore's."
Sherlock swirled his coat as he always did, muttering something about passwords as he tramped into Barrymore's office. "He sat here when he thought it up. Describe him to me."
"You're not seriously going to try to guess his password!" Dr. Stapleton exclaimed. "Our passwords have to be fourteen characters at minimum, containing at least one capitalized letter, at least two numbers and one special character. We're required to change them on a monthly basis, and the system locks you out if you have three unsuccessful tries."
Sherlock scoffed impatiently. "The idea that constantly changing passwords makes a system more secure is a fallacy; it only makes it harder to remember the password, resulting in more resetting to defaults which are easier to crack. The fact that it has to be changed so frequently also makes it more likely that the password is based on a root word. Example: the word 'Welcome', with a special character like the pound sign so that the only variation is the numbers. Fourteen characters, one taken up by the pound sign and two by the digits. I need to find the 11-letter root word. Now describe him."
"Why should I help you?"
Sherlock spun 'round. "Dr. Stapleton, I am trying to solve a twenty-year old murder and hopefully prevent a new one."
"What about Bluebell?" she persisted.
"Bluebell's dead," he snapped. "Case closed. Boring. Describe Major Barrymore!"
"No." She whirled on her feet and brushed past John. As she did, there was a glint of metal in her hand and suddenly John felt a sharp prick at his wrist, followed by a cold numbness that spread like a stain.
"Ow! What the hell?" John snapped his wrist a couple times but the numbness crept further into his hand and up his arm. At the wrist was a dot of blood.
"It's a paralytic," Dr. Stapleton calmly explained, sounding no more perturbed than she had all night. "A new one, just being tested out on the monkeys. It's Miguez's pet project, actually, but I've had quite a hand in it." A bitter smile played on her face for the barest second.
Now Sherlock was on his feet, eyes flashing. "Dr. Stapleton – "
"No," she interrupted, brandishing the syringe. "You listen to me, both of you. I have sacrificed everything for this job. My morals, my ethics, my integrity, my family – " She blinked hard, once. "Yes, sometimes I hate myself for what I do. But that's the bargain I made. And if you take my job away from me, I've given up everything for nothing."
"Nobody's trying to take your job from you," retorted Sherlock. "Don't be more of an idiot than you absolutely must be. John, how's your hand?"
"It's, err." He shook it again and tried hard to keep the panic out of his voice. "It's completely numb. I can't feel it at all. And it's halfway to my elbow."
"Hmm. Faster-acting on humans than primates," Stapleton mused. "I should make a note of that. Provided I still have a position here."
By now Sherlock was nose-to-nose with the scientist. "Nobody is trying to take your job from you. Now give John the antidote and describe Major Barrymore."
Dr. Stapleton didn't move an inch. "If you're not trying to get me sacked, then why did you practically tell Major Barrymore about Bluebell when you were here earlier?"
"Because he's got no social skills," John muttered. His elbow was numb now and he thought his hand was actually turning dusky.
"Or maybe he's planning to blackmail me. Give up my military secrets or he'll reveal mine?"
"If you believe that, you're even stupider than I thought," Sherlock drawled. "If I were planning to blackmail you, which I'm not, I wouldn't set up a system where I was as dependent on you were on me."
"That's how blackmail works!"
"That's why blackmailers are all idiots, and the people they blackmail are even more so. Antidote. Now."
"It's a paralytic," answered Dr. Stapleton condescendingly. "There is no antidote."
"I see." In a flash, Sherlock lunged at her. No, not at her, John realized. At her hand still holding the syringe. Using his left hand, he grasped her right hand and bent it down towards her wrist, forcing her grip to relax. With his right, he snatched the syringe, spun around behind her, and –
Dr. Stapleton gasped and reached to feel the back of her neck. "You bastard."
"Sherlock!" John remonstrated, even as part of him cheered at the turnabout. The physician side of him, however, reminded him that an unknown paralytic injected that close to the brain and major arteries might very well be a death sentence.
"One last time, Dr. Stapleton. Describe Major Barrymore."
"Got to hell." The words were strained, almost garbled. Then the woman's knees buckled and she pitched to the floor. Sherlock did not slow her fall.
Instead he pushed the chair towards John. "Sit. How bad is it?"
John sat, but only because it was easier to obey than to have Sherlock strong-arm him into it. "Look, don't worry about me. Go figure out the password."
"How. Bad." Sherlock looked fierce enough that trying to downplay the danger would be no more effective than fighting him over the chair.
"Almost to the shoulder." Hopefully Sherlock knew about as much of anatomy as he did astronomy. The cephalic vein was ran between the hand and shoulder and led directly to the heart. If the paralytic got into that particular bloodflow . . . .
Sherlock turned back to Major Barrymore's office, eyes darting about like restless birds and muttering to himself. "John, those medals in the picture from the '80s? What war?"
"Um." It took him a moment to focus on the picture in question. "Falklands?"
"9 digits. Too short."
" 'Falklands' plus '1982' plus a special character is fourteen characters," John thought out loud.
Sherlock paused, forehead crinkled. "Change the special character, not the word or the numbers. Three tries." He whipped back to the computer.
Coldness was creeping past his shoulder now. The entire arm was useless, entirely dead-feeling. And, of course, that was when his mobile chose to go off. In the pocket on the side of his drugged arm. He fumbled awkwardly across his body.
"John?" The typing sounds halted.
"Got it! Hello?" Numbness of a different sort enveloped him as Dr. Mortimer sobbed out the story of what had happened to Henry. That was it, then. He knew what had to happen. There was no other way.
"H.O.U.N.D., John!" called Sherlock from the office. "A project from Liberty, Indiana that investigated a drug that made its users extremely susceptible to suggestion. Unfortunately, it also made them violent and unpredictable, eventually driving them into madness. And we have an old friend amongst the founding members of H.O.U.N.D . – Dr. Franklin. John?" Sherlock reappeared in the doorway, brows knit. "What is it?"
"You have to go after Henry. He's got a gun. He attacked Dr. Mortimer. She's all right but he's hysterical, possibly suicidal." Sherlock's eyes raked him over and John added, "I'll be fine. I'm a doctor; this is a lab. I'll find something, make do."
Slowly Sherlock drew out his own mobile and dialed Lestrade.
The cold was worse than winter in Afghanistan. Worse than his first winter back in London after Afghanistan, with the wretched damp that somehow sunk into his bones and made his fresh wounded nerve endings howl. But with the paralytic in full force, he couldn't even shiver. And it was hard, so damn hard, to breathe. Once he had tumbled down the stairs and for a good ten seconds he'd literally been unable to breathe, almost as though his diaphragm had been jarred out of working properly. That was precisely how he felt now. Oh, he could inhale but it felt like the air wasn't quite reaching his lungs.
Also, he could feel that his heartbeat wasn't nearly as fast as it should be, given his fear and stress levels.
Please, Sherlock, hurry.
He was grateful, now, that Sherlock had insisted on bringing him up out of the lower levels to the ground floor. He hadn't wanted to waste the time, not with Henry's life in the balance, but now John was far enough gone now to be selfish. He didn't want Henry dead by any means but if taking care of the young man meant he himself would go without medical treatment until it was too late, then screw that. He didn't even care if everyone forgot about Dr. Stapleton lying on the floor in the lower levels of Baskerville. Very likely she was dead now anyway, given how quickly she went down.
Were those footsteps approaching?
Mr. Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound.
No. No, that was a hallucination. It wasn't real.
The terror, that horrible snarling and howling among the cages, all alone in the dark –
Stop it! John ordered his brain. It was the one organ he had left unparalyzed and it was going to obey him, dammit. It's not a hound or a dog or any kind of animal. It's –
"John! John, can you hear me?"
Sherlock. Thank God.
Someone rolled him over onto his back, cradling his head. Another voice spoke. "Sherlock, he's freezing. And I can't tell if he's breathing."
Ah. That would be Lestrade then.
A warm hand pressed against his mouth and nose, and he tried, he tried so hard, to exhale with some degree of force.
"He's breathing, but he needs a hospital," Sherlock said imperiously. "Call for an ambulance. Now."
"Wait, I don't think one I called for Henry has left yet. Let me flag it down."
John listened to the pounding footsteps fade into the distance and for the first time since the needle prick, relaxed. If there really was an ambulance so nearby, there was medical intervention nearby. He'd be fine. Really, truly fine.
Obviously Sherlock had not such optimism. John felt something – hair, probably – brush his forehead and then Sherlock's voice sound clearly into his ear.
"You cannot die, John. Do you hear me? You cannot die. I told you I only had one friend. John, I don't want . . . I don't want to have no friends."
John couldn't respond to reassure him but he reflected that was just as well. If he had been able to respond, very likely Sherlock would not have found the need to lace their fingers together and hung on for dear life until the sounds of the emergency responders came barreling towards them.