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It was a very distinct sound, the quiet scraping of steel on stone, that first told him that his visitors had arrived, followed by a strange sort of tapping and the shuffling of feet.
The tapping outside in the alleyway became more pronounced, and he suddenly realized it was less the sound of tapping than it was a soft cacophony of claws, snapping together in anticipation. He set aside his pen and notebook and settled back in his chair. There was no denying it. It was time.
The strained amber light of an English afternoon streamed through the greasy windows of the door as it slowly opened into the study. He refilled his pipe with his special cinnamon tobacco mix and noted with passing interest that clouds were beginning to gather on the far horizon.
A storm was coming.
It didn't matter, he thought to himself with some satisfaction. He had said the things he needed to say to the person who needed to hear them. He had protected that precious stewardship that needed protecting, and passed it to those who would use it wisely and well.
There was, he concluded, not much more that could be asked of an old scholar, in this world, in this lifetime. The silhouette in the doorway gestured to him, and he caught a glimpse of wickedly sharp steel, which curved to a point, as the visitor's arm rose and fell. The clicking noises in the alley grew louder.
"Greetings, Professor," the shadowy figure said. "Might I have a word with you?"
"It's not here," the professor said, lighting his pipe and drawing deeply on it. "You're too late."
His visitor appraised him for a moment before concluding that the professor was speaking the truth. "I'm very sorry to hear that," he said. "That does not bode well for you."
The professor shrugged. "What happens to me is no longer important. You may claim my life, but I've put an empire forever out of your reach -- and when all is said and done, which of the two matters more?"
The visitor gestured again, and the tapping noises outside gave way to snarls and animal howling.
There was a rush of bodies, and in seconds the small study was filled with ancient steel, and pain, and blood.
When the noises again faded to silence, the visitors left the study as they had found it, with one exception.
It would be several hours before the first raindrops from the approaching storm would begin to freckle the paving stones in the street, but the professor would not see them fall.
Copyright © 2006 by James A. Owen
The Adventure Begins
The slim, cream-colored note may just as well have been inserted into a bottle and tossed into the ocean rather than sent by post, for by the time John received it, the professor was already dead.
For perhaps the hundredth time, John took the note out of his pocket.
My Dear John,
Please make all haste to London. There is much, too much I'm afraid, that should have been explained to you well before now. I only pray that this letter finds you well enough to travel, and that you will bear me no ill will for what is to come. I do not know if you are ready, and that is my own burden to bear. But I believe you are able, and mayhap that is enough. I hope it is.
The letter had been dated a week earlier, the ninth of March, 1917, and had reached him at the hospital in Great Haywood the day before. John cabled a reply to his mentor, requested a temporary leave, dispatched a note to his wife of less than a year at their home in Oxford, explaining that he would be absent for perhaps several days, and immediately arranged passage to London.
It was the messenger who delivered the cable who found that a murder had occurred and notified the police. John knew without asking that the officer waiting at the platform in London was there to speak with him, and why.
The train from Staffordshire had run late, but this was not unexpected, nor was it any longer even an inconvenience. It was simply one of the erosions of normality that came with a constant state of war.
John had been on leave from the Second Battalion for several months now, since before the holidays. To the doctors, he had pyrexia; it was "trench fever" to the enlisted men. In simpler parlance, his body had grown weary of the war and manifested its protest with a general weakness of the limbs and a constant fever.
On the train John fell immediately asleep, and his fever coalesced into a dream of a mountain of fire, spewing hot ash and lava into the trenches of the French countryside, consuming his comrades as they held fast against the German offensive. John watched in horror as those who fled the trenches were cut down by gunfire. Those who remained, crouched in fear, were swallowed up, the sons of England become children of Pompeii as they died in flame and smoke....
He awoke to the shrill whistle of the train, signaling their arrival at the station in London. He was flushed and sweating and looked for all the world to the awaiting constable as if he was complicit in the murder of the man he had come to see. John wiped his brow with a kerchief, shouldered his backpack out of the luggage racks, and stepped off the train.
His arrival, and his subsequent departure with the policeman, were noted by no less than four individuals, mingling invisibly within the crowds exchanging places between the platform and the trains. Three of them were cloaked and walked a bit awkwardly, due to the inverted joint in their lower legs that made them walk as if they were dogs, striding upright on two legs. Exactly as if they were dogs.
The strange figures disappeared into the throng to report what they had seen to their master. The fourth, which had been sitting alongside John on the train, slipped out of the station and turned down the street taken minutes before by the constable and the young soldier from Staffordshire.
"I'm just saying that there are a number of uses for an English night far superior to investigating a murder," said the inspector in charge of the murder scene, a stout, affable fellow called Clowes. "You can bet the killer, whoever he may be, isn't out traipsing about in this muck. No, he's home by now, having done his business for the day, warming his toes by the hearth and sipping a nice mulled brandy, while I have to be out here on the verge of catching my death...."
Clowes caught himself mid-complaint and gestured in apology. "Not that talking with you lot is all that bad, mind you. Circumstances."
It took John a few moments to realize that he was not the only
one being interviewed that evening about the professor's murder. For the first time, he noticed the other two cuckoos, shivering, nodding at the questioning police, wondering how they'd come to be in this particular dreadful nest.
Shaking hands, they introduced themselves. The younger one, called Jack, was straw-haired and fidgety; the older, Charles, was bespectacled and efficient. He was answering the constable's queries as if he were tallying an account at Barclays. "Yes. I arrived in London promptly at four forty. No, I did not vary from my planned agenda. Yes, I realized he was dead right away."
"And your reason for the visit?" asked Clowes.
"Delivery of a manuscript," said Charles. "I'm employed as an editor at the Oxford University Press, and Professor Sigurdsson was to add annotations to one of our publications."
"Really?" said Jack. "I've just been accepted there."
"Well done, Jack," said Charles.
"Thanks," said Jack.
"So, boy," said Clowes. "Your name is Jack, is it?"
"Yes sir," Jack said, nodding.
"Ah. Not the Jack from up Whitechapel way, are you?" asked Clowes.
"No," Jack replied before he had time to realize that the inspector was making a joke. "Oxford."
"Two of you at Oxford, eh?" said Clowes. "That's an interesting coincidence."
"Not coincidence," said Charles. "Selective association is a privilege, not a right."
"I'm a Cambridge man myself," said Clowes. "Oh, uh, sorry," stammered Charles. "Never actually did go to university myself, mind you," Clowes said to John behind his hand. "But he looked like I'd seen him in the Queen's knickers, didn't he? By the way -- where are you from, ah, John, is it?"
"Birmingham, although I'm billeted at the hospital in Great Hayward at present."
This was not entirely correct, but John thought that pointing out that all three of them were actually from Oxford might not make his evening any easier, nor theirs, for that matter.
There was a certain kind of brotherhood that arose from the shared experiences of warfare, particularly among young men who had shared a trench for a fortnight. It was a different kind of fraternal experience to have been brought together as strangers, who otherwise had very little in common, united only by a murder.
"Never met him," Jack said of his affiliation to the corpse. "In fact, I had just arrived here in London for the evening, to deliver papers for a solicitor in Kent."
The inspector blinked, then blinked again and turned to Charles.
"My story is not much different from his, I'm afraid," Charles said, adjusting his glasses. "I was only here on university business."
"That leaves you, John," said Clowes. "I suppose you didn't know him either."
"No," said John. "I knew him quite well. He was my tutor."
"Really?" said Clowes. "In what studies?" "Ancient languages, primarily," said John. "That was the bulk of it, with additional coursework in mythology, etymology, history, and prehistoric cultures. Although," he added, "in point of fact, I was a rather less than diligent student."
"Aha," murmured Clowes. "And why is that? Was he not a good teacher?"
"An excellent one, to be precise," said John. "But the priest who helped to raise me when my father passed, who paid for the bulk of my schooling, in fact, believes that this kind of study is, ah...not practical."
"I see," said Clowes as he scribbled on his notepad with a stubby piece of graphite. "And just what is 'practical'?"
"Banking," replied John. "Commerce. That sort of thing." "Humph," snorted Clowes. "And you disagree?"
John didn't reply, but merely shrugged as if to say, What can one do?
"Well," said Clowes, "I'm just about done here. But as you seem to be the closest thing Sigurdsson had to family, would you mind taking a look at the scene of the murder? It may be that you can spot whether something is amiss, where another could not."
"Certainly," said John.
Jack and Charles waited with the constable in the foyer while John and the inspector proceeded to the library. The smell hit John first -- burned leather, accented by the cinnamon-tinged tobacco that only the professor smoked -- but the room itself was a disaster.
Books were strewn about everywhere, and the backs of the shelves had been hacked to pieces. There was not a single piece of furniture unbroken. A number of books had been placed in the hearth to burn, with limited success.
"It was the bindings what done it," said Clowes. "Leather, with metal clasps. Thick, holds moisture. Made a stench like the devil, and smoke black as his beard. That's what drew the attention of the messenger when he got no reply at the door."
John glanced around the room, settling his gaze on a dark, crescent-shaped stain on the rug near the partners desk where the professor worked.
"Yes," said Clowes. "That's where he was found. Bled out quick -- he didn't suffer, lad."
John thought this was a lie, but he appreciated the gesture nevertheless. "I couldn't tell you if anything's missing, inspector. It seems that everything that isn't chopped to bits or burned is...well, nothing worth noting. The books have some value, but only to persons like myself -- and there's nothing here worth killing for."
Clowes sighed. "That's what we were afraid of. Well," he concluded, snapping his notebook closed, "I appreciate your time and cooperation. And I'm sorry for your loss."
"Thank you," said John. He turned to leave, then stopped. "Inspector? If I might ask, just how was the professor killed?"
"That's the other thing," said Clowes. "He was stabbed, of that there's no doubt. But the point of the weapon broke off against a rib, and so we got a good look.
"As far as we can tell, he was killed with a Roman spear. A Roman spear of a make and composition that hasn't been forged in over a thousand years."
*** The gray drizzle of the evening had become a truly miserable English night, and the business of the murder investigation had kept the three newfound companions out past the last scheduled trains. "I know a club just a few streets over," Charles offered. "Shall we repair there and remove ourselves from this dismal, damp night? We can catch our trains in the morning, after we've had a bit of warmth and a nip of something to settle our nerves."
Jack and John concurred, and they let Charles lead the way through the labyrinth of streets.
"Funny that he was a book collector," Jack said after they had gone a few blocks. "A Shakespeare scholar, even."
"Funny? In what way?" asked John.
Jack shrugged. "Because -- he was killed yesterday, on the fifteenth."
Slowly it dawned on John, then Charles. "Julius Caesar," John said.
"Yes," said Jack. "It may not have meant much in Caesar's time, or even in Shakespeare's, but it would've been a warning well heeded last night, if anyone had been around to sound it. "Beware the Ides of March."
As it turned out, the club to which Charles led them had literary allusions of its own. It had been a privately rented flat not two decades earlier, and had since been transformed into a club accessible to a private group from Oxford, of which Charles was a member.
"221B Baker Street?" John said with a hint of incredulity. "Are you quite serious, Charles?"
"Completely," Charles replied. "Oxford paid for its conversion, and it's very useful to have such a retreat when on business in London."
He opened the door and ushered his two companions into the entry hall. The main establishment consisted of a couple of private meeting rooms and a single large, airy sitting room, with adjacent entryways to what John assumed were the neighboring flats, converted to a similar use. The large room was cheerfully furnished, and illuminated by two broad windows that looked out onto a solitary gas lamp and the worsening gloom of night and storm. The fireplace, attended to by an inconspicuous manservant, was at full roar and brightened their spirits considerably as they moved toward it, their clothes exchanging dampness for a light draping of steam.
"Much better," said Jack.
Jack took up residence in an immense Edwardian wingback chair and made himself quite at home. John preferred to lean on the hearth, the better to warm himself and dry his clothes, while Charles, with an ease born of familiarity, opened the liquor cabinet at the far side of the room and began pouring drinks.
"I've let the manservant go for the night," said Charles. "I don't expect any other members will be turning out on a night such as this, and to be candid, after our adventure with inspector Clowes, I rather appreciate the privacy."
"I'm looking forward to doing as you have, John, and joining the war effort," said Jack. "I was hoping to get in a term or two at school, but it seems the chancellor has other plans."
"You're young," said Charles. "You may find time and experience curb your taste for adventure."
"That was a bit of an adventure tonight, wasn't it?" Jack continued. "Imagine getting mistaken for the student of a dead professor..."
Charles's scowl wasn't quick enough to cut off the younger man before a pained look crossed John's features.
"Oh, dear -- Look, John, I'm sorry," said Jack. "I wasn't thinking."
"It's all right," John said, staring into the fire. "If the professor had been here, he'd have thought it was funny."
"You must mind your decorum," Charles admonished Jack.
"Especially once you've begun your courses at...Jack -- I say, are you listening to me?"
The younger man shook his head, stood, and crossed the room. "There's a very strange man outside," said Jack. "He was standing across the street under the lamp for several minutes, and then he crossed to the corner, where he stood for several minutes more, and he is now standing outside with his face pressed to the window...."
As one the three companions swung around to meet the surprised gaze of a strange apparition: a smallish man, seemingly cloaked in rags and wearing an outlandishly tall pointed hat. He was indeed pressed to the window, his nose pushed flat and his handlebar mustache askew with dampness.
The tatterdemalion at the window abruptly disappeared. Almost immediately came a solid rapping on the door.
"...and now he's at the door," finished Jack.
"Bother," said Charles. "This is a members-only club. We can't simply be catering to every vagrant who hasn't the sense to be home on such a night."
"Oh, come now, Charles," said John, rising to answer the door. "If it wasn't for you, Jack and I would be in the same boat, and we've only just met."
"That's different," Charles sniffed. "You're Oxford men."
"I haven't actually begun yet," admitted Jack.
"A technicality," said Charles.
John opened the door and the strangest little man any of them had ever seen stepped inside and shook himself like a mongrel, spraying water all throughout the entry hall.
His appearance was what might result if you shredded an illustrated edition of the works of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, then pasted the pieces back together in random order. His coat and trousers were equal parts Old Sultan, Rumpelstiltskin, and Hans-My-Hedgehog; his shoes, the unfulfilled aspiration of a hundred cobbler tales. And his hat was some ruthless combination of The King of the Golden Mountain and The Shroud. His eyes twinkled, but his hair and mustache were sopping, and he looked as if he'd been beaten about the head and shoulders with some sort of shedding forest mammal. The only organized aspect of his appearance was a large parcel wrapped in oilskin, which he clutched tightly under one arm.
"Dreadful night," said the man, still dripping. "Dreadful. Twenty pounds of misery in a ten-pound sack. If I'd ever known such a night was going to come about, I'd have told my own grandmother not to bother having my father, just to avoid the trouble."
"Well, once you've dried off a bit, you'll have to leave," said Charles, covertly hiding the good bottle of brandy behind the inferior brands. "This is a private club. What were you doing watching us?"
"Is this a question for a question?" asked the man. "I answer yours, then you answer mine?"
"Can't say that isn't fair, Charles," said Jack.
"All right," said Charles.
"Good," said the strange visitor. "I was watching to make sure no one else was."
"What kind of answer is that?" sputtered Charles. "That's not a proper answer."
"Oh, come on," said John. "Be a sport." He turned to the little man. "Your turn. So what's your question?"
"I thank the gentleman," the man said with a slight bow. "And now my question:
"Which one of you is John? And do you know that Professor Sigurdsson is dead?"
Copyright © 2006 by James A. Owen
An Unusual Tale
After a brief , stunned silence, John regained his composure. "That would be me," John said, standing and proffering his hand.
The apparition grasped his hand in return, pumping it frenetically. "At last, at last!" he exclaimed. "So happy to make your acquaintance, John, my dear, dear boy. And what better place than here at Sir Arthur's home-away-from, eh? So grand, so grand. Yes..."
Jack and Charles exchanged skeptical glances, and Jack twirled a finger at his temple.
The little man continued undeterred. "I trust you can take it from here, correct?" he said, thrusting the oilskin-wrapped parcel in John's direction. "You know what must be done. The professor would not have left you unprepared for this."
John waved the parcel away. "I haven't the slightest idea what you are talking about. We've only just ourselves come from the professor's house, and I haven't known of his death for but the last day."
"I see. Well then, if your apprentices might help me unwrap the Geographica, we can get down to business."
"Assistants?" said Charles. "I'm not -- we're not -- sorry, Jack -- his assistants -- apprentices," he sputtered. "I'm an editor for the -- "
"Yes, I'm sure you are, and a fine one at that," the little man interrupted. "But that can only mean...John, tell me, are you -- were you -- the professor's only student? Were there others?"
John shook his head. "Not with the war going on. We had to prepare well in advance just to meet. I don't think he had the time for much correspondence and private tutoring with anyone else."
"Interesting," said Charles. "How did you come to such an unusual arrangement?"
"Hard to say, really," said John. "He came upon a few stories I'd written -- trifles, really -- and took a liking to them. He found I'd been billeted in Great Haywood after my return from France and came to see me with a proposal that he tutor me."
The little man did not respond to this but simply nodded, watching.
"It is a terrible loss for you, I'm sure," said Charles. "I now regret even more the lost opportunity to meet him. He sounds like an extraordinary man."
"He was," said the strange visitor.
"We only came here tonight because of Charles's membership in the club," said Jack, "but you came specifically seeking John. How is that?"
"Happenstance. Turned the wrong way and saw you enter. I can't keep these streets in order any more. Always lose my way. But even that is providence, for if I'd found the harbor earlier, when I was supposed to, I'd never have found you."
"What's at the harbor?" asked Charles.
"My ship is anchored there. Now, we must -- "
"One moment," John said. "For all we know, this could be the murderer. He knew of Professor Sigurdsson well enough to know of me, but we know nothing of him."
In response, the little man rooted around inside his threadbare cloak for a moment before locating a crumpled note, which he proffered to John. It was, save for the person to whom it was addressed, identical to the one John had received from the professor.
"I trust that will suffice as evidence?" he asked. "I arrived from my travels abroad just yesterday and removed the Geographica from the house for safekeeping. The professor insisted on remaining there to wait for you. We were to reconvene in his library, this evening."
"This is the Geographica, then?" asked Jack, gesturing at the parcel.
"What is it?" John asked.
The little man blinked and arched an eyebrow. "It is the world, my boy," he said. "All the world, in ink and blood, vellum and parchment, leather and hide. It is the world, and it is yours to save or lose."
Without waiting for a further response, the man carefully hefted the large parcel onto a table and began to unwrap the layers of oilcloth.
"It looks like a book," said Jack.
"I can see you're the smart one of the group," said the little man.
"Thanks," said Jack, beaming. "I'm Jack."
"Pleased to meet you, Jack," said the little man. "Call me Bert."
"Okay, Bert," Jack said, stepping forward to help uncover the parcel.
Under the oilcloth lay a largish leatherbound volume, worn smooth with use -- or great age. It was tied at the open edge with cloth straps, and debossed on the front, its letters still bearing glittering traces of golden embellishments, were the words Imaginarium Geographica.
"Hmm. 'Geography of the Imagination,' is it?" said Charles. "Interesting."
"Close," said Bert. "A better translation would be less literal: 'Imaginary Geography.'"
"Imaginary?" said John, peering at the large book. "Of what use is an atlas of imaginary geographies?"
The quick smile almost hid the shadow that passed over Bert's features before he answered. "Why, you are of course having a game at our expense, young John. It serves exactly the use one would think: to guide one to, from, and across imaginary lands. "All the lands that have ever existed in myth and legend, fable and fairy tale, can be found within," continued Bert. "Ouroboros, Schlaraffenland and Poictesme, Lilliput and Mongo and Islandia and Thule, Pellucidar and Prydain; they are all there.
"Collectively, the place where these lands exist is called the Archipelago of Dreams -- and it was for this book, this guide to the Archipelago, that the professor was killed."
"This looks like Greek," said Jack, his nose an inch from the open spread of the first map.
"Smart lad, Jack," said Bert. "There are a number of such maps at the beginning, but as you can see, several have been annotated in other languages, including English -- although most of them are still untranslated," he finished, elbowing John. "Lucky we have you here, eh, my lad?"
"Wait a moment, just wait," said John, backing away. "I don't understand what this has to do with me, or how you even knew who I was, for that matter."
"I knew who you were, John, because I was the one who read your writings first. I was the one who sought you out and advised the professor that you were the ideal man to become his successor. I was the one who saw within you the potential to become the greatest Caretaker of them all.
"I had assumed that your companions were in turn your apprentices -- no offense, Charles -- but only because there have always been three."
"Three? Three what?" asked Jack.
"Caretakers of the Geographica," said Bert. "Now, we don't have time to dawdle," he continued. "The race has already begun."
"What race?" asked Charles.
"The race," said Bert, "to avoid catastrophe, my boy -- with the whole of human history as the stakes. We can only hope the education you have had thus far has been enough."
"My education?" John said, incredulous. "But why is -- "
Before he could continue, the night air was split with the long howl of a hound. It rang deeply and loud, finally fading into profound silence. Then the howl came again, joined by another, and another.
But this time, it was closer. Much closer.
Behind the horrible harmonies of the howling was a faint staccato -- the shouts of men, angry, seeking. The sounds of a mob.
For the first time since he had entered 221B Baker Street, Bert's face became drawn and somber, and tinged with fear. "That's it then, lads. We have to go."
"We?" sputtered Charles. "I'm not going out in this! Especially with some kind of...of beasts running amok in the streets!"
"You have no choice, I'm afraid," said Bert. "They're coming for John and me, so we must leave -- but if they come here to find we've gone, you would fare the worse for it."
"Coming for me?" said John. "Why?"
"Did you think they would stop with the professor?" asked Bert. "They can't -- won't. They haven't gotten what they're seeking -- this," he said, slapping his hand on the Imaginarium Geographica. "And as it is now yours, I'm sure they'll have no problem cutting you down as easily as they did him."
Bert began to wrap the atlas in the oilcloth, and Jack stepped in to help him. "Quickly, now," he said to the three young men. "We must fly!"
"Fly where?" said Charles.
"To the harbor, of course," said Bert. "To my ship. My crew is waiting for us now, and they are beginning to worry, no doubt." Charles began to protest, but Bert cut him short.
"These are not rioters coming for us. They are not soldiers. They are not even, in point of fact, men as you know them. But whether or not you believe my warnings, or that I have a ship awaiting us in the harbor, or that anything I have told you tonight is true, believe this: If we stay here a minute longer, we shall all be dead."
If Bert's appeal was not convincing enough, the shadows that appeared on the opposite street corner pushed the companions' motivation to the fore.
The band hunting them brandished swords and spears of an unusual make. But stranger still was the fact that they appeared to walk on all fours, claws clicking on the cobblestones, only occasionally standing upright to sniff at the air before rending the night with more earsplitting howls.
"Wendigo," Bert murmured to himself. "He's pulling out all the stops -- and it can only get worse. Charles," he asked, turning quickly, "did Sir Arthur have a back exit to this place?"
"Yes," said Charles. "This way. Hurry."
Bert, Jack, and John followed Charles through a warren of small rooms to a door at the end of the apartment. "Here," said Charles. "They expanded into the adjacent flat, and it has a door that opens onto an alleyway."
As they entered the hallway, there was a crash and a splintering of wood from the foyer behind them.
"Hurry, lads!" said Bert. "Hurry!"
Finding the exit, the four companions moved quickly but cautiously into the alley, which was empty. Heading for the intersecting street, their steps became more and more hurried, realizing that it would only be a matter of time....
When they were a block distant, the angry howls of their pursuers told them their path away from the club had been discovered. The hunt had ended. It was now a race.
In moments the companions were running at full speed toward the harbor.
Copyright © 2006 by James A. Owen