March 2, 2008
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………[ RATED R ]………
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Memory in the Skin

“Sparrows”

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by nlr alicia
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<< This story is inspired by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s tales of his immortal characters, Sherlock Holmes and Doctor John Watson. The content shared here is the responsibility of this author.>>

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On style choices: I use Americanized spelling and punctuation because I’m not confident I’ll always remember to use Anglicized alternatives and the possessive “Holmes’s” as Doyle does in the Strand version of HOUN because I like it better.

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Author’s Note: This story will serve as part of the Prequel to a planned novella length tale called Blood Memory. Rodg and the twice-damned (sounds like a rock band, doesn’t it?) will return.

Content Warnings: Implied slash. Violence. Body modification. Blood.
General un-goodness. Not happy, cheerful, bright or light. No kissing. No kidding.

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It’s what you might call a mystery of nature, but some fellows look more naked half-dressed than they do all the way stripped to the skin. This young man, Will Prescott he called himself at the time, was one. If my old girl, rest her soul, could’ve seen him laying there bare-arsed on my work table I know she’d have been inclined to throw a blanket over him and give him a hot cup of something.

I’d bucked my rules about late night custom to see him. In the usual run of things when a lad shows up at old Jolly Rodger Hodgson’s place after seven bells looking to get his new sweetheart’s name put on his arm, to seal the deal you might say, or to get a permanent souvenir of London Town inked on his chest before shipping out next morning, I show him around the corner to Jim Traft. Jim stays open to all hours and doesn’t much care as long as the lad’s got the cost, though he’s most of the time as lit up as his customers.

But I didn’t shut the door on Will and it was hard to say exactly why. Might be it was the way he held himself kind of stiff, like a boy waiting to see the headmaster and expecting to get six of the best and him with no more meat on him than a Spring colt. Or it could’ve been my Lucy reaching down to lay her hand on my shoulder.

Then, too, something in his light colored eyes put me in mind of a boy I knew on a clipper off Mandalay. That one came on board with the look of a yearling not yet broke to the saddle who gauges you kind of wary like he’s not sure he ought to run or hope for an apple from your pocket. Before we got within sight of shore again he’d lost that look and a sight more besides. I wondered if his sweetheart would recognize him for the boy she’d sent off to sea with a kiss for luck. With Will I remember thinking after it was a marvel he’d kept that look because it wasn’t many who would have.

As it stood I was glad I’d already finished putting up the shutters before I let him in, much less by the time we got to work or this Will might have found a couple of likely lads waiting for him up the next alley. Though I hadn’t much doubt, whip-thin as he was, Will could look after himself I didn’t like to see him have to try. Moreso when I sent him back out favoring his leg and looking three shades paler than he did when he came in.

It was hard to say why I had the idea he might run up against the like, but even before he gave out with his story, or “series of incidents” as he styled it, it was in my mind to wonder. I do know with his crop of hair, blacker than charred ebony, and his light colored eyes he’d have been like catmint to a tom for a few of my old shipmates.

I never had cause to begrudge such things when all parties are willing. A man takes comfort where he finds it and it’s not a concern of mine. But you have to be pretty hard not to mind seeing a fellow mistreated and I always did regret not sticking up for that boy off Mandalay.

So it was, once we got names out of the way, I stood there inside the door after closing time ready to get a fix on what this Will Prescott in his tradesman’s suit and with his cloth cap in his hands, had a mind to see me for.

“New ink, lad? Or re-inking one you’ve got?” I said, fishing a stray bit of paper out of the jetsam on my desk to start totting up the price for him.

I like to give the lads a clear fix on the cost before we get too far. No one’s the better for getting halfway through a screaming eagle chest piece and finding out they’ve two pound six to their name.

“Neither,” he answered back. “It’s more of a… I suppose it might be considered a removal.”

I noticed he kept glancing around the walls and I didn’t think he was studying the flash I had tacked up for demonstration, as you might say. I concentrated on my paper. No reason to make him any more skittish by staring him down, I figured.

“Removal then,” I said. “You sure you don’t just want a correction? Takes a bit longer, but there’s not much an arrow-shot heart won’t cover. Or a sparrow’s nice, with or without a name on a banner. Sparrows is a specialty of mine and it’s no secret I’ve got a way with lettering. A nice new patch of ink is a far sight handsomer to look at than a scar and does more to scuttle old memories.”

He turned around and gave me a sharpish look then, but I’ve got a standard pitch as you might say and whatever this lad’s story, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to give it and if it didn’t suit him to hear it he knew where the door was well enough.

I said on, “The other thing about scars, in my experience, is they spark questions. The ladies like nothing better than to hear how you come by them. But a tattoo, long as it doesn’t say ‘Bess Forever’ and your girl’s name is Louisa, well, they usually give it a miss. Now that’s all I’ll say on it, but I’m laying it out as a bit of fatherly advice, as you might say.”

“Thank you,” he answered back, and even though his look had relaxed, his voice was just as sharp, “But I came to you for a removal not advice, fatherly or otherwise, and because I was told you are both skilled and discreet. I trust that I was correctly informed on both counts.”

“Well, now,” I said, giving that speech the consideration it deserved, “I can put my hand up to the skilled part and I’ll not be shy about it. I’ve been pushing ink most of my life and there’s not many as knows their way around a needle better, but ‘discreet’ isn’t a qualification I get called on for much. Though if it was I might count not asking whether I’d find the name ‘Will Prescott’ in any family Bible on your shelf at home as discreet.” I could see he was getting ready to seize up again so I added, “But I suppose I can call you by it if you like. It’s as good a name as any and better than some.”

“I’ve always thought so,” he said. “May I assume we have reached an understanding then?”

“I think you can, Will,” I said, and I meant it. “‘Live and let live’ is more than a set of words to me and it sounds like that’s got around, which I can’t complain on. So a removal it is. How big an area are we working with? That’ll figure in the price.”

“Not expansive,” he said readily enough though his face was still looking a mite pinched around the edges. “However, it is rather… deep.”

I turned that over for a space. “Maybe you’d best show me what we’re talking about, Will. Might clear up my questions a bit faster.”

He let out some breath at this and I could tell he’d been holding it for a while, but he skimmed out of his jacket quick enough.

I got a bit of the air let out of my lungs, though, when he left his shirtsleeves be and went for the waist of his trousers. As I say, I’ve been in the trade long enough to see some oddities, you might say, and there’s no telling what these lads might take it into their heads to do out East some of the time, but there’s always a space when you wonder what you’ve let yourself in for.

Turns out it was best I was ready for just about anything. Will turned to the side, raised up his shirt with one hand and dropped the waist of his britches past his starboard hip with the other.

I wouldn’t have taken Will for a guest of Her Majesty’s boarding house nor a soldier, so there went my first two guesses on how he might have happened into such a thing. There wasn’t a question of going out looking for it. If you’re going to get something of the sort on a purpose you’re probably not the type as wants to get rid of it.

If pressed I would say I was pleased with myself for not coming out with a “Cor, blimey!” or six other kinds of words you can’t say in front of a church. I think if I’d blared out the first thing that came to mind this Will might’ve bolted for the door and figured he could always get a new coat.

What I did instead was scratch at my beard and say kind of matter of fact, “Might be a bit tricky, this. Mind if I get a closer look?”

Truth tell, I heard a ship’s sawbones say it one time when a mate come up to him with a pike shaft sticking out of his flank and it seemed to put everybody at their ease then, so I thought it was worth a toss. Turned out it was a good tack on my part.

Will’s shoulders settled a mite and he came back with, “I did assume that would be a requirement of the proceedings.”

Not being one to get all het up over words, I let it go. Seemed like, and it turned out to be the way of it right enough, sharpening his tongue was like whistling past a graveyard with this one. So I just hiked up my drawers and with no more to-do squatted down near by his bare hip.

Best way to gentle a fractious colt is with a steady touch so I didn’t dither about it, just laid my hand on his haunch. He twitched, as you might think, but it did him credit the way he stood solid. I took heart at that as there’s some can’t abide it and like most things it’s best to get that sorted out straight away. All the same, getting an up-close look at the territory in question didn’t settle me any.

It was by way of a monogram, you might say. A letter “M” more than half a hand high and about as wide. Will being a tall lad, it didn’t appear to cover as much territory as it did, but it was deep, right enough. Best I could tell, it was traced in with a blade then fixed with a burn. I gauged it went over half an inch down, but I figured the scar went deeper.

My old man used to tell me how they’d give a fellow a brand to show he wasn’t trusty to have on shipboard or similar, but the tradition fell out of favor a while back and this wasn’t any of that kind. Leastwise, it wasn’t so regular as any brand I ever saw on an animal with hooves.

It’s a mixed blessing, you might say, having a flair for imagining. With ink, it’s a winner. I can get a fix on how a bit of flash is going to lay in the skin and make allowances for this or that bend or crease so it comes out pretty as the picture on the wall.

It wasn’t a boon in this particular case. I could fair smell the skin singe and it wasn’t hard to figure it’d taken a good long time and a few trips back and forth from the fire.

Turned me up a bit, I don’t mind saying, to think it was somebody’s idea of a good time to put their stamp on the lad, sure as if they’d set to with hobnails and a damn sight more lasting. Right then I got it fixed in my mind that if I couldn’t tell the twice-damned rascal what I thought of him with the back of my hand or worse, least I could do was wipe off his mark. The skin would remember, like it does. It’d show a hurt, but not a name.

Still there was no way around the fact we’d be in for a bad patch of sea, Will and I, and it wasn’t any point in shilly-shallying. Since the job wasn’t going to get any easier by staring I hoiked myself up and faced back to my desk.

“Let me just do a bit of figuring here,” I said and tugged the paper back over. “You can wait while I’m after calculating the sum or you can give an old man a hand setting up.”

Like I figured, he wasn’t one to stand about. “What you would you like me to do?” he said matter of fact as you please and I heard him doing up his britches.

I inclined my head to my chair. It was a special pride of mine I’d saved up enough over the years to get a really fine one. That night I was particularly glad of it.

“There’s a drawer at the bottom,” I said. “Fish out a bit of linen and while you’re down there crank on that handle. Smart lad like you can take it from there.”

He was smart as paint that one, and it was no surprise to me he didn’t waste any time about it. Nor did I. Factoring in the time and supplies I worked out the sum and cut it by half.

While he was busying himself I gave out a number and he answered back, “Done,” before the air was all the way out my lungs. There wasn’t any call to sound his pockets, I figured, so that was the business side done and dusted.

Getting the right tools together took a spell of time as it wasn’t a set I normally kept to hand. I had to improvise a bit as you might say.

Questions generally serve me all right when I need to fill air and sometimes it’s easier to explain things that way as not all lads can pay close attention to a long stream of talk. I didn’t figure I’d learn much that’d come in useful. All I needed to know was going to be under my hand soon enough. But it seemed like it couldn’t hurt to put a little distraction in the way of his anticipating so I started with the basics.

“I want to be sure you know what you’re letting yourself in for, lad. Got any ideas about how this is going to work?”

“As a matter of fact, yes,” he answered back. “I thought it best not to be surprised. Do you prefer salt or a tincture of muriatic acid?”

“You did do some looking into it,” I said and I wasn’t shamming my respect for the fact. It showed initiative, not to say planning. “Taking that into account, I don’t expect you’ll be too surprised to know I don’t get much call for this exact kind of work. To answer your question, though, as you put it so plain I’ll tell you plain. This here’s my own process. I got a recipe once from a glass man and it’s a bit like what he uses to etch. It’s a mite more predictable than those you named and makes for a cleaner finish.”

I had everything laid out on my cart quick enough and I was wheeling it over right about the time he was settling down on his belly. No hand holding required, I saw, and I was glad of it.

He’d kept his shirt on and I didn’t see any harm, though as I said before, it was a peculiar thing but half-dressed he looked more than full naked. I guess that’s why it crossed my mind to do one more task so before I sat down I veered off and shot the bolt on the door.

“Along side of that,” I said as I pulled up my stool, “I picked up a few tricks from a sawbones I used to know and I’ve got a fair amount of cotton here and some strips of sheeting and I reckon that’ll do us for dressing. I’ve got a bit of catgut and a fine needle, too, if it’s needed. We’ll find that out as we get farther along.”

Before I settled myself at the cart I pulled the stool around to the head of the table. Will was propped up on his elbows and studying me with those light colored eyes of his. If it weren’t for the pulse going double-time at his neck I would’ve thought he was taking his ease in the park.

“Just so there’s no mistake, Will, this is going to bite like nothing you’ve felt before and that’s saying something as we both know.” I said. “Now I don’t keep much around for numbing the skin apart from a coca mix I picked up in Hispaniola. For ink, I figure if you can’t stand it going on you mightn’t want it bad enough after all. And I don’t get enough call for ‘removal’ as you might say to make it worth keeping things around that some fool might take it into his head was worth knocking down the door for. Apart from that I can offer you some whiskey that ain’t hard to drink and won’t make you blind. Now you wouldn’t have to go far if you wanted to go fetch something on your own and come back. I could keep the door off the latch for you. Poppy works just as good inside as out from what I hear and–”

“No,” he cut across me. “That won’t be necessary.” He took a breath before he came out with, “What you mentioned before about memory… I’m not averse to having the original superceded. I’d prefer to get started if you don’t mind. I imagine this will take some time.”

I nodded. “You’re not wrong there. It’ll take a far cry longer coming off than going on, I reckon, though that couldn’t have been a speedy job. At least an hour was it?”

“Somewhat more,” he said and he went to studying the flash again. “There was no great sense of urgency in the room.”

That knocked me back a bit because now it sounded like I might have more than one twice-damned rascal on my mind, but I took it in without turning a hair.

“I think you can count on leaving out of here about breakfast time,” I said. “Though I don’t expect you nor I are likely to have much appetite for one.”

“Understood,” he said. “Shall we begin?”

There didn’t seem much more to say, but I tried again with “How about that whiskey?”

“No, thank you,” he said, just like I’d offered him a cuppa and a biscuit, so I left it aside and pulled my stool back around. In just a jot I was getting down to work.

“This here’s the coca,” I said, smoothing it on with a bit of cloth so’s not to deaden my fingers. “I’d like to tell you I’m going to use more than normal, but it’s actually a sight less because I want a clear field, you might say. It doesn’t work too deep, so it’s not going to make much difference soon enough anyhow.”

I put the cloth aside and got out the stoppered bottle of solution. It was dusty, but that stuff doesn’t age any. “Now, like a tree wants to fix a cut in the bark, the skin’s the same way sometimes. Looks like it’s been a few years and yours has had time to come back a bit around the edges. I put that down to you being young enough to still have some give in your sails and that’s all to the good. It could be a benefit for what I have in mind to try. I’m going to work from the center to the sides and I think that’ll give it a bit better appearance at the finish although I won’t varnish the fact it’s not going to be a beauty spot.”

“It may not surprise you to learn, aesthetics are the least of my concern,” he said and I noticed his voice was steady even if his muscles were jumping a bit.

“That’s as may be,” I answered, pleased to keep him talking. “But aesthetics are my stock in trade so if you were expecting a slap-dash job you’re not going to get it from me.”

“Will it be legible?” he said.

“No, that I can raise my hand to.”

“Then…” he started, but I got to the serious work about the same time and whatever he was going to say we both forgot about it.

I don’t know what it is about seeing a lad hold himself strong through the worst the world can portion out. That boy off Mandalay was just the same. Even when it got so rough the Captain was hard put to ignore what was going on below his feet the lad never let it out.

Will didn’t make a sound and I wasn’t too surprised by that. His breathing got a mite unsteady, but then I expect mine did, too. All the same I figured it would do us both good to have something else to occupy our minds so I started back with the questions soon as I could.

“You said a bit ago you got my name recommended and I ain’t put ‘Jolly Rodger Hodgson’s for Ink’ on any sign boards I recall. Out of curiosity and just so’s I know who to thank, who set you at my door?”

“I was given your name by a mutual acquaintance,” he answered back and I took heart that his voice was only a little breathy.

“And who might that be?” I said.

“Shinwell Johnson.”

That name got my interest up. “Young Porky Johnson?” I said. “Out of Parkhurst, is he? Thought he’d gone up for a good stretch this last go.”

“He did,” Will said. “He’s still a respected resident of the institution and will be for some time.”

“Well, Porky Johnson, rough though he may be, never put me in the way of trouble,” I said. “Still and all, I hope he’s not going around telling his friends from Her Majesty’s boarding house I stay open till all hours for all sorts, because he’ll be steering folks wrong there.”

“Not at all,” the lad answered. “I asked for someone who met the two criteria I mentioned before and your name was the first that came up.”

“So’d you meet Porky in stir?” I asked.

“No, slightly before,” he said. “In a professional capacity.”

“Begging your pardon, Will,” I said. “But I wouldn’t take you for one in Porky’s line. Generally, the job calls for someone with a bit of heft.”

“I’ve got more ‘heft’ than you might imagine,” Will said and I’ll be damned if I didn’t hear a smile in his voice.

“I don’t doubt it,” I said. “I know a bit about muscle and you’re not lacking it, though it’s the lean sort. Now I notice,” I went on and I was smiling a bit myself because I appreciate cleverness, “You didn’t exactly answer my question, though I admit I came at it a bit sideways and it’s not my job to ask questions, I suppose.”

“That was my preconception, yes.”

“Funny thing about preconceptions,” I offered. “Despite your clothes, some folks might judge you by your talk, which ain’t quite toff, but ain’t East End neither. As I think on it, it ain’t any End at all nor North or South, and I’ve got a better ear than some. Still, going just by your talk, I wouldn’t have looked to find you on a midnight street in Limehouse. Yet here you are.”

“That is true,” he said. “Mr. Hodgson, I hesitate to tell you your business, but I would think a near continual stream of enquiry would put some other of your clients off.”

“You know, you might think so,” I said easy enough. “But it’s never done a damage to what you might call my career. Fact is, you’d be surprised how many blokes wants a chance to tell the tale of the why and wherefore of their bit of ink.”

“I’m sure I would.”

“Fond remembrances most of them,” I said. “Even the ones getting a correction are usually a bit sorry to let go of that bit of memory in their skin. Some wouldn’t mind holding on to that keepsake of their ‘Glynnis’ or ‘Liza.’ Still I reckon this one you wouldn’t want to pin in a scrapbook.”

“You’re very perceptive.”

“Kind of you to say, Will,” I said, playing along for it seemed like this was as close as I was going to get to a conversation. “One thing I’m curious about–”

I was pleased to hear him give out a snort at that because it was good to know he could still muster a sense of humor.

“All right, you’ve got me there. My old girl used to say, ‘Rodg, that cat of legend’s got nothing on you.’ But it ain’t killed me yet and at this stage I figure there’s more pressing things to worry about doing me in, so I’ll just keep on being curious until somebody teaches me otherwise. So going back to preconceptions, as you might imagine, I have some curiosity about how, apart from our mutual acquaintance, we had cause to get to know one another.”

“Yes, I did imagine it,” he said.

“Well, I didn’t have much thought I’d get anywhere with that line of talk,” I said. “But I figured I’d throw it out. Most folks enjoy the chance to range on about themselves and it was worth a go to try and put you at your ease a bit.”

“I assure you, I’m as at ease as I’m likely to be under the circumstances.”

“I hate to contradict a customer, Will,” I said. “But if you get any stiffer I might varnish you and set you outside a smoke shop. You’re going to have to untense yourself a bit or this is going to take even longer than early estimates and it’s safe to say neither of us wants that.”

He appeared to turn that over in his mind for a space before he came out with, “Perhaps I’ll take that whiskey after all.”

“That’s the spirit, if you’ll pardon the expression.” I fetched the bottle and a glass in two shakes. “I won’t join you,” I said as I handed it over, “But cheers all the same.” I raised the bottle.

“Cheers,” he said, and downed a sizeable amount in one gulp. It didn’t shock me any to see he barely flinched at that neither.

“Spot of the best,” I said, refilling his glass before I went back to my stool. “Works better than any blasted ether and it’s a damn sight safer, I expect.”

“I imagine that’s true.”

“Got anything to do with how we come to the matter at hand? You’ll pardon the expression,” I said. “I’m only asking out of professional curiosity, mind, but it doesn’t seem to me this kind of task wants much less than a pretty potent numbing.”

“Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case,” he said, and took another long pull at the glass.

I nodded, because I wasn’t surprised. “Must’ve hurt like a bugger.”

“Just as you say.”

“Not too carefully done, neither. I tell you, Will, I’m a professional at this trade. Been doing it most of my life. I’ve seen some work that needed correcting in my time. A lad that can’t read a lick fancies himself a regular Shakespeare if you give him a sail needle, a pot of ink from the steward’s cupboard and a whole lot of time between ports. And I’ve seen some fellows in Africa where they put on scars to say they’re men. But both of them eventualities show a passing interest in the final effect, you might say. This one puts me more in mind of a soldier that come to see me once after getting back from a bad patch in Turkmenistan. He didn’t much care to tell the story either, just wanted to get a bit of fixing up before his nuptials. A lot of lads that need corrections come in when they land a new bride to be or just a sweetheart they plan to keep a while. That true for you?”

“Not as such, although the broad outlines are similar.”

“There’s a lot of room for broad outlines in that last patch of conversation, Will. I suppose you’d tense up again if I went back and pieced it out a mite.”

“Very likely.”

That was where I left it for a space because about that time I had to make a couple of nicks to ease the skin. While I held on some cotton to staunch the blood I rared back a bit in my seat to take a look at him.

A muscle in his jaw was jumping to beat the band, but he looked straight ahead like he was trying to memorize the painted sparrows there. That didn’t ease my mind any so I cast around for something else to occupy him.

I remembered he’d taken some interest in the process, you might say, so I came out with, “You know I’m a bit proud of this solution I’ve got here. The one from the glass man, you recall I mentioned.”

Well, he was interested, sure enough and that got us on to chemicals and that seemed to hold a real interest for him. I was relieved to find a topic that got him to put more than six words together at a time. He fair warmed up to it and I was pleased to see it was the first line we’d hit on that seemed to actually take some of the wire out of his bones.

It was good timing, too. About then I had to give up on conversation and just keep a bead on what I was doing. He kept on talking, though I could tell he was starting to lose his concentration a bit and I was sorry for it because that’s when I got to a particularly tough stage.

I thought it best to let him know, so when he stopped to take a breath I said, “Hold that thought, Will, I’m going to have to take out some skin here and I can’t use the coca because I need my fingers as capable as possible. Can I get you a bit of rag to bite down on?”

“No,” he said, kind of quiet. “Thank you. I’d just as soon not.”

“All right, then,” I said. “Take a deep breath and count to a hundred.” And I got to work as quick as I could. I take pride in the fact he only had to get to seventy-five before I said, “There. Now what were you saying about chlorides?” He took a couple of gulps of air, but then he launched back into it all right so I figured it was safe to keep working.

Early on I’d figured he’d not be one to have his eyes roll back in his head and drop out on me, but you never know so I kept an eye on him when I could spare one. I think he came close once and that was the only time I heard a peep out of him. If I hadn’t been strung quite so tight I might’ve missed it for it was no more sound than a kit makes in its sleep. Hearing it, I nearly had to push back and take a breather, but I didn’t want to let on I’d noticed so I kept working.

By and by he seemed to be fading a bit and for lack of anything better I started talking about the sparrows and how the first one I painted was one I saw on a fence post when I was a lad.

“You grew up on a horse farm,” he said and it fair took me by surprise.

“I did that, Will,” I said. “I suppose you picked that up from my turn of speech here and there.”

“Yes, that and the calluses on the balls of your fingers. They’re the kind you get from leather, like a horse’s reins, rather than the kind you get from rope. The second sort you have along the side of your palm.”

I was kind of struck quiet by that and he offered up, “I noticed it while you were doing your calculations earlier. It was nothing extraordinary, I assure you. Just simple observation.”

“Observation it may be,” I said. “But not simple. You always been so observant?”

To my surprise that got him off on a new tack. He started telling me how he’d trained himself up to have such talents and the kinds of studying he’d done at college to add to it. Once he let slip he had a brother who could do the same thing only moreso and I would’ve liked to get him talking more about that, but then I got to another tough go and we both got quiet.

That was when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw him put his face down to his shirt cuff.

My breath was a bit unsteady when I finally came out with, “Close to the muscle right there. That might have been the worst of it. Here’s hoping, anyhow.”

Though he didn’t ask for it, I refilled his glass then. He kept staring right ahead at the sparrows, but he took a long pull at it as I sat back down.

Around that time I got to threading my needle and settled in to make the finish as neat as I could. About the only thing on my mind was the job in front of me so the best I could come up with to say was, “This is a bit of a new one on me, as I think I said before, so I’m not sure how long to tell you it’ll take to heal up, but this part’ll probably take longer than the original, too. About how long was that getting over?”

As it came out of my mouth I realized how tired and wrung out I was because talkative I may be, but I’m generally a fairly bright fellow. Least ways my Lucy used to tell me so and she wasn’t given to flattery.

I was about ready for any kind of frost he might care to dish out after that, but he took me by surprise again.

“To take your question in the most literal sense, the length of recovery was less than for a broken arm,” he said like he was reading off the back of a tin of biscuits. “I had the opportunity to do a relative comparison. The tools used were a weighted stick, a blindfold and gag, more than ample manpower, and, as I said, no shortage of time. Due to the aforementioned blindfold, I really couldn’t tell you what implement was used to render the final result, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn it was the pommel of the knife that made the starting incision. As to the non-literal sense of your question, I have no answer as yet. Are there any other questions? If not, I’m content to let you continue to work uninterrupted.”

That did leave me quiet for a space. When I spoke up again, it wasn’t to ask a question.

I said, “Danny Ferris was my best pal since we were just a couple of sprats running barefoot in the country. Me and Danny, once we got to what we thought was the right age to be men, we wanted a change from fields and farms so we signed up together for a hitch at sea. It was a good life, being sailors. Hard, but we were used to hard work on the farm. Our third cruise out, off Trinidad it was, one of those storms they get in the tropics blew up. A line came loose, it was a one in a thousand chance. It caught Danny around the knees and the middle. Fair took him apart. I got to him just in time to see his eyes go dim and it was all over. On board you don’t talk about such things. Sailors are superstitious as a rule and you figure the less you talk the less you’ll give the old sea witch ideas. It wasn’t till I wed my Lucy… I had dreams, you see. Me and her talked about Danny and his end and those dreams, pretty soon they stopped coming except once in a blue moon.”

He was quiet for a bit and I thought he mightn’t answer at all then, in just the same tone as before, he said, “That is a fascinating story.”

“Always held a special fascination for me,” I said. “I’ll give you that.” After a space I added, “I think that’s one of the things I miss most about my good girl. That and her cooking. She could cook, that one. But I mostly miss having her ready to listen when I get a mind to talk about more than the price of beans and meat.”

He gave out a little breath and said, “Mr. Hodgson there is no story. There were a series of incidents. I trusted someone I shouldn’t. That person’s loyalties lay first with an organization, not any individual. I was not, and am not, inclined to join an organization. Of any kind. Certain parties took it amiss. I was not amenable to persuasion. I was rather forthright in my condemnation of the organization and its members. What you see is retaliation. It is not the sort of thing you take to the school governors. I came to London and began my career earlier than expected which proved to be all to the good. Through my own efforts I identified all but one of the parties involved. I have been able to remove several from society thanks to their propensity for violent tactics and I hold out hope of doing the same for the rest who are still living. While I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a blessing, mixed or otherwise, I like to think the outcome, ultimately, will be a good one for society at large and I’m glad of it. For the rest, the simple and central fact is I trusted the wrong person and I make every effort not to do that now.”

“And here you are,” I said.

“I believe what you mean is ‘And yet, here you are.’”

“Well, you’re the scholar,” I said, finishing off a knot. “If you say that’s what I mean I reckon I can take your word for it.”

He lay there quiet while I threaded my needle again. After a bit he said in a voice much quieter than his usual, “Your earlier supposition about… There are new circumstances.” He let out a long breath. “I hadn’t planned on meeting anyone.”

I nodded though he couldn’t see me. “That’s the way of it, in my experience. It only happens when you don’t plan on it. You trust this person.”

He didn’t bat an eye. “Yes.”

“I’m right glad to hear it,” I said, and meant it. “I didn’t like the way the story– I beg your pardon, the series of incidents, ended before.”

I finished up a little later. I was sweating like a draft horse, but a bit proud when I pushed back my stool and stood up to stretch.

“Done and dusted. Want to take a look?” I said and went to my desk to get a hand mirror I keep there.

“Not particularly,” he said. “No.”

I heard him start moving around, so I came back right quick. “Hold on there, lad,” I said, “There’s still the dressing to go. Now, if you don’t want to see the result before I cover it up, I won’t force it on you, but it would set easier in my mind if you did. Otherwise, I might worry about seeing you roll up to my door again and not so nice and friendly next time.” I gave him a grin as I handed over the mirror, just to let him know I didn’t expect anything of the kind.

He took the mirror from my hand and after a breath, he took a look.

“That’s– better than I might have expected,” he said finally.

“Careful, Will,” I said, grinning all over my face. “You’ll turn my head.”

“It’s very fine,” he said and gave me a little smile back. “You’d have made a good surgeon.”

I settled back on my stool to get busy with the cotton. “You’ve got to have a good eye in my trade,” I said. “Or you’re liable to lose one to a dissatisfied customer. Now it’s clean but don’t take any chances.”

I admit I took my time a bit there at the finish, to make sure he had his breath all the way back. When I pushed back again, I wheeled my cart to my tool bench and set to tidying up. I let him get himself up and moving. I figured he’d prefer it. I made myself busy while he eased back into his trousers. It took a little time, but not over much.

In a short spell he was at my desk with his jacket on his arm and reaching in his top pocket. He counted out the sum I gave before and passed it over.

“I think this is rather less than you’re owed,” he said kind of quiet.

“Truth to tell, Will,” I said. “I’d as soon of done it for a handshake, but prideful as I took you to be, I didn’t expect you’d take that in the spirit intended.”

He gave a real smile at that and it lit up his light colored eyes in a way that went right to my heart.

“You’re very observant, Mr. Hodgson,” he said.

“Sure you won’t stay for another dram of whiskey?” I said.

“No.” He shrugged into his jacket. “Thank you, but… the person I mentioned will worry if I don’t appear at some point in the– ” He looked out the window at the sky growing pale. “This morning.”

“Look here, lad,” I said, because I couldn’t help myself. “It ain’t none of my business, but I’d like it if you came back some day, to let me know how it works out with this present party.” I gave him a grin. “Maybe I could talk you into a sparrow then, with or without a banner and a name.”

He nodded, real matter of fact. “Thank you,” he said. “I’ll keep that in mind.” He glanced back at the flash on the wall. “The sparrows are very nice.”

“You’re always welcome, Will.”

We shook hands at that and I let him out to the street. I watched him a bit, just to be sure he had his legs under him. Then I locked back up and put out the light.

I didn’t stop thinking about that boy off Mandalay. And I wouldn’t have if I could. But now I had a new memory and if it didn’t supercede the old one as Will said, at least it balanced it a bit. That was about all I could’ve asked for. I think my old girl would’ve been glad.

fin.