Third One's the Charm
He should've snapped some photos when he'd had the chance. John had neither Sherlock's acute observational skills nor his bloody mind palace to store things in. He relied on a better-than-average memory and technology. Only this time he'd failed on the tech front. He should be forgiven under the circumstances; that had been one of the most gruesome crime scenes he'd ever seen. Shocking even to a military doctor who'd served in wartime because the trauma inflicted was so precise and deliberate.
John sipped at his scotch, glad he'd bought a new bottle even as he was finishing up the old one. He'd been scrolling through arcane websites looking for anything familiar for what felt like an ice age with no luck at all. He rolled his head around on his neck, stretched his arms over his head, and leaned back in his chair. His back cracked satisfyingly and he sat up straight again, scrubbing his hands over his face.
"All right." His current methods were getting him nowhere. It was time to try another tack. He might not have a mind palace, but he'd spent long enough with Sherlock know his methods and to have picked up some observational skills beyond the ordinary person's.
He closed his eyes and took a few deep breaths. He thought back to the body he'd found under the altar. There'd been a one of those strange symbols on the dead man's right shoulder. Focusing his mind on shapes and contrasting patterns of light and dark, he narrowed down what he saw in his mind's eye. He thought about what he knew. The shape of the shoulder joint, the muscles and bones. He thought about the skin and finally moved to the slices and cuts to the flesh. What had they looked like?
Opening his eyes, he scrambled on the desk for a pencil and paper. The image was on the tip of his mind. If he could only draw what his inner eye had seen...
Curved lines. Hard angles. Broad strokes that narrowed to sharp points. The symbols themselves were vaguely blade-like, and carved into flesh with a knife as they had been? It was all a bit much. He stopped sketching and slugged back his scotch, looking at what he'd drawn.
Haitian Vodou, Brazilian Candomblé, and...? What the fuck was it? It almost looked Klingon.
He rolled his eyes. "God only knows what Sherlock would say if I suggested that. A fictional language from a sci-fi show? Not likely." He tossed the pencil aside and crumpled the paper. Rethinking, he smoothed it out again and stared at it, then shook his head and crumpled it again. He needed to get another look at the body. Examine it properly. Make a catalogue of the symbols and sort them. "Damn it!" Why hadn't he taken photos?
"Idiot," he muttered. "Molly." He glanced at his watch. It had been long enough, hadn't it? Surely she'd have the body--bodies, he corrected himself--at St. Bart's by now. Speaking of the time, where was Sherlock? Never mind. One puzzle at a time.
He shut his laptop and grabbed his coat, shoving the wadded page into a pocket as he trotted down the stairs to the front door.
It had been a long time since Molly had bothered to offer the rote protest to allowing John or Sherlock access to the morgue. Nowadays she simply offered a small nod and quiet greeting. "You're after the bodies from the speakeasy, I imagine."
"Ah, yes. Just the one, actually. With the, ahem, carvings."
"He's over here." She led him to the closer of the two occupied exam tables and pulled back the sheet.
It was both better and worse looking at the corpse in the clinical light of the morgue. Better in that it was easier to put professional distance between himself and the victim. Worse in that he could properly see the havoc that had been wrought on the man's body. Or rather what remained of his body.
"Heard from Sherlock?" he asked.
"No. I figured he's looking for the missing bits."
"Don't mention it to Lestrade."
"I expect he's figured it, too," said Molly with a quick, knowing smile.
"Good point." They looked back down at the body.
"Odd, isn't it?" said Molly.
"That Sherlock's looking for the limbs?"
"No. That's no surprise. I meant that they'd leave the head but take the appendages."
"Oh. Yes. I suppose that is a bit odd." He cleared his throat. "Mind if I--?" He gestured. She nodded.
"Be my guest."
He stepped up to the slab and found the symbol that he'd been working to recreate. He'd not done too terrible a job of it, as it turned out. Maybe a reverse image search would find it if he got a clear photo. He pulled out his phone and aimed the camera at the symbol.
"Fhtagn," said Molly, startling him.
"That." She nodded to the symbol. "Fhtagn. It means sleep. Or wait."
"How do you--?"
"There's another on his chest, just below the fourth rib on his left side. Uln fm'latgh. I'm only guessing at the pronunciation, of course. He didn't leave a proper guide."
John felt as though he'd missed something. The sounds she'd made sounded more like someone choking than communicating and her English statements weren't making much more sense. "Who didn't leave a guide to what exactly?"
"Lovecraft. He made up R'lyehian words, but not rules how to say them. Oscar figures he didn't expect anyone to actually try to speak it. I mean, there are fewer vowels than in Georgian. Personally, I think he was just being lazy."
"I'm sorry," he said again. "Lovecraft?"
"H.P. Lovecraft. He invented Cthulhu and Shoggoths and all that."
Finally something that made sense. He'd heard of H.P. Lovecraft and Cthulhu, not that he actually knew anything about either. Only the names. Suddenly his earlier thoughts of Klingon didn't seem so ridiculous. "Are you saying that these symbols are--what did you call it?"
"R'lyehian. Again, just guessing at the pronunciation."
"That's fine. Have you found any more of this R'lyehian on the body?"
"Oh!" Molly perked up. "A few more. You saw that one, fhtagn. That means sleep or wait. Under the circumstances I'm guessing sleep. Uln fm'latgh, there, that means summon burn. There's some on his back, too, and on his legs."
John wasn't normally someone who counted on others to do his homework for him, but for the sake of efficiency... "Have you identified them all?"
"Sure. It wasn't hard. You know the two on his torso now." She pointed out one on the dead man's thigh and started her lesson.
He pulled the crumpled page from his pocket and a pen from another. Smoothing the twice crushed paper he turned to the blank sign and began taking notes, guessing at the spellings as she guessed at pronunciations. By the end he had a fair list.
Sleep or wait. Summon burn. Travel + dream. Spirit/soul. Threshold. Servant of darkness.
"Well, that's a cheerful sentiment." He huffed out a sigh and scratched the back of his neck, almost as if he were trying to rub away the chill that suddenly ran up his spine.
"Oh yeah. It's not exactly light reading, is it? At least it's not the actual call of Cthulhu."
Her comment only half registered, focused as he was on what the symbols were, not what they weren't. "What about the rest of it? What Sherlock identified as Vodou and Candomblé?"
She shrugged. "No idea. You can have a look at the photos of everything if you want. Maybe you can even catalogue the three different sets for me?"
It was a fair trade for the information she'd just given him. "I'll do my best."
"I really can't send them to you, though, so you'll have to do your research here."
A small smile tugged at the corner of John's mouth despite the gravity of the setting. "Like old times. In here?" He quirked a thumb in the direction of the lab.
"Thanks. You'll let me know when Sherlock shows up?"
"I think he'll let us both know, don't you?"