So this is the chapter with the promised special appearance by you-know-who and… wait. I just realized that could be confusing. It’s not Voldemort. I hope you’re not disappointed.

What else can I say to make this chapter sound interesting? It’s got three- no, four faces of varying familiarity, if you like that kind of thing. Oh, and it’s got a character who seems to be observing “Talk Like a Pirate Day.”

That last thing is going to strike some of you as, er, blatantly wrong, but it’s explained (badly) in the final chapter…waaaay, far away. Which reminds me, there are 12 chapters now instead of 11. I moved some things around and added a bit of h/w because it… Right. Yes, sorry. Not interesting any more. Okay, have it at.

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Chapter Three: Meaning and Saying

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One of the last visitors to sit by my hearth was Mrs. Isa Whitney. She had been a good friend even before Mary’s illness and had been a godsend during it.

Bright, blond-haired, patient Kate Whitney had been widowed far too young by a husband who had, in the end, been unable to break from the grip of his addictions. She and Mary, with their separate pain, had grown quite close. Kate and I spoke warmly of Mary and of her indomitably good spirits even in those final days.

“You know, she cared a great deal that you should be happy, John,” Mrs. Whitney said, her mahogany brown eyes regarding me seriously. “More than you know.“

She took a deep breath and leant toward me as she spoke. “John, we’ve seen far into one another’s lives over the years and I must tell you one thing before you go. It’s something Mary wanted to say to you herself, but…” she hesitated, then went on resolutely. “While we were in Bath, when you left on your last adventure with Mr. Holmes, Mary told me she’d given it a great deal of thought and, more than anything, she wanted you to do what would make you happiest. But by the time she saw you again– well, it all changed so suddenly, didn’t it?” She gave me a sad smile. “I think Mary’s only regret was that she hadn’t the chance to tell you.”

I must have looked confused because she reached over, patted my knee and said gently, “You take that thought and keep it close, John. I think it will make sense to you in time.”

Those words were all she would say on the subject and so we turned to other conversation, but as she parted from me she leant forward and gave me a light kiss on the cheek. “Be happy, John,” she said, “For Mary’s sake and for your own.”

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My mind was soon so taken up with last-minute preparations I hadn’t time to ponder Kate Whitney’s conversation. One of the last tasks I’d left myself was clearing a few spaces in my bookcases for the convenience of my new tenants. I decided to leave most of the books on their shelves to give the place a more welcoming look but I expected a man of Thom’s studious bent would soon start building a library of his own.

On the last afternoon before I was to depart on my travels I was engaged in packing some of my more specialized medical texts into storage boxes when I distantly registered the sound of the front bell. Soon thereafter my maid Bess (who had insisted on staying to supervise the closing up of my household accounts before leaving to take up her new position) stepped in to announce a new guest.

“Who is it, Bess?” I asked as I straightened my shirt front in an effort to make myself presentable.

“Mr. Holmes, sir,” Bess responded in her usual efficient manner and I fear I must have blanched for her features softened and she amended, “That is, Mr. Mycroft Holmes, sir.”

I steadied my voice and answered, “Do show Mr. Holmes in, Bess, thank you.”

While I waited Bess’s return I made an effort to calm my somewhat jangled nerves. Despite my attempted show of calm, it had given me a turn to hear that name announced in both forms. It may have not been so startling to hear the first if hearing the second was not so unexpected in its own right.

Seeing Mycroft Holmes away from his habitual digs in Pall Mall was an event akin to finding a tramcar on a country lane to use his younger brother’s phrase. In fact, I had not seen Mycroft Holmes since the small, private memorial service for his brother and then only long enough to shake hands. To find him in my doorway was unprecedented.

But there was no mistake for a moment later I heard a heavy tread in the passage and the imposing figure of Mycroft Holmes loomed in the doorway. Seeing him in my familiar domestic surroundings was a bit like seeing Jove descended to Earth.

Besides being the possessor of a figure seemingly inflated in height and width to a grand scale, Mycroft Holmes had the commanding features of Plato in his prime and, according to his brother, something of the same reasoning power.

Without my Holmes as an intermediary, I felt a marked trepidation in facing this formidable personage. Bearing out my apprehension, his first utterance put me quite off balance.

“Your maid has been crying, Doctor,” he announced in his ringing voice as he paced into the room. He did not spare a glance for my furnishings and I had no doubt the action would have only confirmed some prior and passing theory as to their selection. “I’ve never found it desirable to have emotional women about the place when there’s a great deal to be done,” he went on, “They’re not much use at the best of times.”

I chose to overlook this comprehensive dismissal of the gentler sex, finding it easy enough to do after long association with his brother, but I couldn’t help but be curious and so once I’d seen his substantial frame settled in my largest club chair (the one I’d judged sturdiest) I questioned him on his statement about my maid.

“Bess seems quite herself to me,” I said. “Why do you suspect she’s been crying?”

“It is no suspicion, Doctor, mere observation,” Mycroft Holmes intoned, “She has traces of fresh powder on her nose. Face powder is not a commodity a girl in service dispenses casually, certainly not when she favors a cosmetic that is frankly beyond her means as your girl does. I hear you’re taking yourself away from our metropolis. Good. I understand travel is said to broaden the mind.”

I blinked, adjusting to this sudden shift in the course of conversation. “I had no idea you’d heard of my plans,” I said. I did not expound on the fact that it was a surprise to learn his sphere of attention, circumscribed as it was, included me in any way now that his brother no longer formed a link between us.

“I have acquaintances in the medical community, Doctor,” he said, as if reading my thoughts. “Word reached me soon enough that you were planning a journey toward North Africa.” His gaze had taken on an intensity that was at odds with his languid expression. “Will you be taking the ferry from Montpelier?”

“I will be traveling overland through France,” I said carefully, for I did not wish to risk offending him if this was some deduction he had made by means unknown to me. “But I will be taking the ferry from Marseilles.”

“Ah, that’s that then,” he said, seemingly pleased by the information. “You are equipped with such requisites as the well-prepared traveler carries, I assume. Have you a reliable guidebook?”

In fact, I had acquired a seemingly comprehensive pamphlet from my travel broker some days before and said as much. He waved his hand dismissively.

“Acquire a Baedeker’s,” he all but commanded. “The latest edition has received high marks for competence. I’m sure it’s as reliable as a product of German manufacture may be.”

“I’ll take that to heart,” I said for I certainly had no reason to doubt his judgment. “I am sure I have room in my bag for another guide.”

“There’s a bookseller around the corner. Prescott’s in Runnymede Mews,” he said. “The man seems competent enough though not particularly ingratiating. He’ll no doubt be able to outfit you admirably. Mention my name. I’m sure he’ll be glad of the custom.”

And with that he heaved himself from the chair with an audible groan of protest from the strained leather upholstery. “Drop me a line if you’re in any way– hampered in your travels,” he said with a surprising hesitation in his words. “I’m not without connections abroad.”

He reached out and enveloping my hand in his gave it a perfunctory shake. “I’ll see myself out. Bon voyage.”

As his heavy footfalls faded on the stair outside I collected my thoughts. Advice from Mycroft Holmes was certainly worth considering and I had heard good reports of the Baedeker’s series of guidebooks. A trip to the bookseller’s might also net me a few more novels to stow in my kit bag as proof against delayed trains and other inconveniences. Moreover, I had yet to obtain the new journal Stamford had enjoined me to purchase.

And so, later that evening, I found myself pacing the pavement of Kensington Church Street searching for the turning to Runnymede Mews. It had been no little effort to locate on my London survey map and on reaching the spot where I had understood it be I was only marginally surprised to find the court was nowhere in evidence.

But, feeling that I had committed myself, for it was my last evening in London and I had no time to travel farther afield in search of another bookshop, I continued the search. At last I spotted a narrow door of wood planking so aged it seemed held together only by force of habit.

There was a verdigris stained plate on the door that read “r.de mews” but gave no other indication of what might be on the other side. Cautiously I pushed on the boards and found myself at the mouth of one of those ancient alleys that seemed to have been unaccountably missed by the Great Fire.

There were just three doors visible in the shadowy court. One weathered signboard read “Seamstr–“ the rest of the letters being erased by a growth of mildew. A gray-green door to the left of that had no markings at all. Opposite them across the broken pavement was a bare wood door quite as unimpressive as the others save for a new warded lock.

A low window of ancient rippled glass beside the door was covered in a thick gray haze. I assumed it at first to be city dust but as I bent to looked more closely it proved to be whitewashed from the inside. Through gaps in the swirling pattern I could make out rows of faded books lining the sunken floor.

The unpromising look of the street combined with the lack of any welcoming placard in the window had almost decided me to turn back, but before I could straighten the door was yanked inward by an unseen hand. Between the sudden movement and the tinkling peal of a shop bell I nearly toppled over. As I righted myself I heard a querulous old voice bark, “Well, are ye comin’ in or airn’t ye?”

I muttered some apology, although I wasn’t quite sure for what reason, and bent to step through the low door. I stumbled on the bowed wooden step leading down to the shop floor and threw out an arm to right myself, nearly overturning a high stack of ancient leather-bound volumes.

I steadied the tottering pile of to the accompaniment of a volley of “Tut-tuts” from my yet invisible host. My hands came away with a sticky residue of dust and it was an effort to resist the urge to wipe them on my trousers.

“I don’t know,” muttered the dry old voice, “These young men. Unstable lot. Soon as push over yer books as say how d’ye do.”

Belatedly remembering to remove my hat, I stood clutching it as I looked around in the dim light for the source of this complaint. I stepped farther into the room and at last spied the shopkeeper lurking behind a stained oak countertop.

He was engaged in fussily tidying a set of pocket-sized books, his arthritic hands protected by archivists’ gloves. A volume fell open and I glimpsed an etched color plate of a starling in flight before he snapped the book shut and squinted up at me over the rim of his scarred tortoise-shell spectacles. His eyes, though surrounded by crêpey wrinkles, were surprisingly sharp and such an arresting shade of gray that I froze with my greeting on my lips. He immediately stooped below the countertop and I heard him muttering over the sound of shuffling paper.

“Not so much sense as the good Lord gave a mackerel. Don’t know how they keep upright half the time,” he said not quite under his breath. “Staring at a feller like a hedge rabbit in a high wind–”

“Glad I found you at last,” I said, bravely attempting to stem this low volume tirade, “I was told you might be able to help me. Mr. Mycroft Holmes said I should mention his–“

I broke off at the sound of a volley of bone-rattling coughs from below the level of the counter.

“Are you all right, sir?” I asked in some concern for it seemed as if a fit of apoplexy might be in the offing. “May I get you some water?”

Abruptly the elderly man straightened to his full height, which could not have been more than five and a half feet, and barked in his dry voice, “Holmes? Holmes? Big, fat feller wit’n evil glint in his eye?”

“Well, he’s a large man,” I said uncertainly.

“Oh, yus, I know ’im,” said the old man eyeing me narrowly. “Low sort. No breedin’ a’tall. Friend of his are ye? Well, no wonder then. All right what’re come for? My time’s not so cheap I can spend it ditherin’.”

“Yes, well,” I said, blinking. “I shan’t detain you long. I was looking for a few novels – something along the lines of Stevenson or Melville.”

“Nope, what else?” he said and pursed his lips expectantly.

“Ah, a journal – a memorandum book of any kind?” I ventured.

“No empty books,” said the old man, squinting at me over his glasses, “Only full ones. This ‘ere’s a book shop in case you were wonderin’.”

“And a Baedeker’s,” I said flatly, now thoroughly ready to escape this strange little man’s company. “The latest for North Africa. I’m sure you don’t have it, so I’ll just be–”

“Why on Earth d’yer want ter go there for?” he asked.

“Ah, well,” I said, startled by this sudden show of interest in the conversation. “A friend recommended it. I wanted to go someplace with sun and–”

“What’s wrong wit’ It’ly?” he challenged. “Tha’s got sun. Bit dusty, but sunny enough.”

“Yes, Italy is nice,” I said slowly, thoroughly confounded by now. “But this friend of mine–”

“Don’t sound like much of a friend ter me,” said the old man. “Sendin’ ye ter Africa on a whim. Luxembourg, now. Tha’s sunny. If ye gets up high and don’t mind snow. But if yer going ter Luxembourg ye might as well go ter Belgium. Never had much use fer Belgians. Nah, stick wit’ It’ly. Tha’s my advice, long as yer takin’ it from every side.”

“My good, sir,” I said evenly. “It’s not that I don’t appreciate your views. But I am going to Africa. Tomorrow. Do you have a Baedeker’s Guide or shall I go elsewhere?”

“Not so fast, young man,” said the bookseller with a mollifying wave of his gloved hand. “Not so fast. I got somethin’ here tha’s jus’ the thing fer ye.”

The man ducked below the counter again and I heard books thumping and shuffling below. At last he straightened with a small rust-colored book clutched in his hand.

“This ‘ere’s the book yer after,” he said and slapped the book down on the counter, stirring up a flurry of dust. “Beats that German article all ter blazes. Though much good it’ll do yer in It’ly.”

“I’m sorry, but I was looking for–” I started.

“So ye jus’ come in ter waste an old man’s time, eh?” he said, squinting fiercely over his glasses. “D’yer want the book er don’ ye?”

I opened my mouth and closed it again then abruptly advanced to the counter.

“How much?” I said tersely as I reached for my change purse. In my haste I dislodged the slim black syringe case in my breast pocket and it fell to the counter with a clatter. I muttered an apology and stuffed it back into my pocket, located my purse and shook the contents out into my hand. There was still no response from the little man so I looked up questioningly to find his eyes were fixed on my pocket.

“Sir?” I said, feeling ever more certain that I inadvertently wandered into the lair of a madman. “How much?”

The bookseller blinked and cleared his throat. “Ten an’ six,” he snapped, going back to straightening the birding guides on the corner of the counter. “An’ two fer a sack if yer wants one.”

“No, thank you,” I said, determined to be courteous, and counted out the change. He held out a gloved hand and I dropped the change into his palm. I scooped up my book for he seemed disinclined to offer it to me and said, “Thank you,” again, as politely as I could and turned to make my escape.

“Safe voyage,” said the voice behind me, with a quiet so at odds with his previous tone I looked around startled.

“We’re closed,” he barked, glaring at me over his spectacles. “Come again.” And with that he came shambling around the counter with the clear intent of locking the door no matter which side of it I was on.

I stumbled back up the wooden stair and out into the court. The door slammed behind me and I heard the tumbler lock shoot home. I found myself standing in the darkened mews, clutching my book in one hand, my hat in the other, and feeling unreasonably drained.

After a moment, I placed my hat firmly on my head and stepped forward to let myself out the door to the street. Deciding that it was the worry of preparing for prolonged travel that was playing havoc with my nerves, I resolved to go to bed early that night and finish my last-minute packing in the morning. I was so preoccupied with these thoughts I nearly ran into a man standing just outside the door.

“Pardon me,” I said quickly. “I didn’t see you there. Head in the clouds, I’m afraid.”

I smiled apologetically, but the man merely glared at me. I had the impression of hard, ice blue eyes and a bristling gray mustache, then the man grunted and brushed past me, hurrying up the street toward Notting Hill Gate.

Shaking my head in resignation, I started for home. All things considered, I mused, it seemed I was leaving London not a moment too soon.


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-«oOo»-
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~ Coming Soon ~
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Chapter Four: Echoes
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